Speculation, invention and making new worlds
Design, sci-fi and philosophy
It is possible to think about the future, to consider things that have not yet happened, and still not come up with anything new. The future imaginaries that we looked at last time can keep you walking on well-trodden roads: you can create possible scenarios simply by extrapolating what you know already, and end up just describing how things are today in a different setting. Thinking about the future, often seen as as a way of challenging what we take for granted, can instead present it in bolder, thicker outlines, reaffirming that whatever changes are coming will leave much of life unchanged.
Sometimes this is fine, of course. It would be awful if thinking about the future was only successful if it left people troubled and feeling far from safe harbour. And there are different reasons for thinking about the future: for planning, or for risk management, if those are what you’re doing, staying within known parameters and keeping people confident are both vital. But beside the ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’ that Donald Rumsfeld made famous, there are the ‘unknown unknowns’ that the former US Secretary of Defense was most concerned with, the things we don’t realise we’re unaware of. And as Žižek reminds us, filling out the matrix, there are ‘unknown knowns’: things we all know very well but which don’t feature in our conversations, as if they were, in fact, not known to us: complicity in sustaining racist or sexist behaviours, perhaps, or our part in exploiting other people, or other moral lapses it would be burdensome to acknowledge.
Futures and foresight work has, historically, been focused on broadening our understanding of the world in order to better recognise what we don’t know, and futures studies, from its inception in the 1970s but especially in recent decades, has had a particular focus on working to promote social justice and equality. So unknowns, both unknown and known, are the business of futures work. And central to the way it approaches the unknown is what I am going to describe as speculation.
Hello! I'm Richard Sandford, programme lead for the MSc Heritage Evidence, Foresight and Policy, based in the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage at The Bartlett. This is newsletter 4 in a series of 8, giving a flavour of what the programme’s about. Questions? Feedback? Drop me a line.
Speculation is a word with a history. Originally from a root meaning ‘to observe’, it has moved from Latin through Old French to English, and along the way its meaning has been enlarged, from indicating the use of thought to pursue the truth, to describing conjecture and unsupported assertion by the sixteenth century, to risky gambling in the stock market by the eighteenth. Together, these meanings point to a general sense of intellectual experiment, of asking ‘what if..?’ and trying things out. This experimentation is what leads to the production of new ideas, departures from how we thought before the experiment. Speculative design, speculative fiction, speculative philosophy and research are not all trying to do the same thing, but they all have a common interest in trying out new ways of being in the world. They suggest that speculation about the future is less about simply moving our present further along the timeline, and more about finding new ways to imagine relating to the world and each other.
The field of design has a natural and longstanding concern with the future, as much through contributing to the imaginaries we discussed last time as actually imagining and making the things that will exist in the future. Victor Papenek, in the 1970s, showed designers their responsibility to do this ethically, considering their contribution to a sustainable society. Tony Fry, in the late eighties, drew attention to design’s capability for ‘defuturing’, limiting future possibilities by concentrating on the (perceived) needs of the present. The necessary foreclosure of some futures over others that design entails is one of the key questions raised within critical design. The journal Design Philosophy Papers, active between 2003-2018, was an important venue for addressing it, and the recent book Design as Future-Making, edited by Susan Yelavich and Barbara Adams, is a good introduction to some other questions around design’s relation to the future.
But the most visible connection between the fields of futures studies and design lies in the ‘design fiction’ or ‘experiential futures’ practices that emerged in the 2000s. Stuart Candy (and collaborators) developed the notion of experiential futures as a way of making possible futures more real to people, staging events and presenting artefacts from the future that people could engage with on a visceral and affective level. Around the same time, the Near Future Laboratory established their approach to ‘design fiction’, creating objects similarly intended to provoke questions about the context in which they fit and the role they might play in people’s lives. These laid the ground for the explosion of made-up future things that, following Dunne and Raby’s ‘Speculative Everything’ in 2013, became known as ‘speculative design’.
Communo-nuclearists, living in a constantly-moving train of mountains: one of Dunne & Raby’s (2013) United Micro Kingdoms
The nature of the relationship between futures, design and speculative design is something that goes beyond the scope of this newsletter (though if you’re interested in understanding the field and its history, the marvellous Speculative Education project is a great starting point, and the recent special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies on Design Futures is a comprehensive jumping-off point). Speculative design has, without question, made narratives of possible futures tangible and accessible: projects like Superflux’s ‘Mitigation of Shock’ or the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ ‘Future is Now’ situate people in the middle of a possible future, presenting them with questions that seem more urgent and crucial through being attached to something material. This is a world away from the dry, textual formats often used to share scenarios. You don’t have to ask the audience to be as generous, to do so much work on your behalf, when they have actual things in front of them that make the future as real as the present.
Making the Anthropocene visible: the Pink Chicken project from Nonhuman Nonsense
It’s also encouraged some designers to perpetuate a colonising and insular approach to design, claiming the future as a subject only design is capable of addressing, focusing on spectacle over a critical engagement with the kinds of questions raised by more thoughtful practitioners, and ignoring the relevance of other fields. Design itself is a vital tool in moving to a fairer and more sustainable world, and speculative design done right is a powerful and important tool for communicating and exploring possible futures. Like scenario planning, however, there’s nothing in it that necessarily prevents it being used by the present to project itself forward. Maybe the key is to have a clear idea of what it means to speculate first?
People have been creating speculative narratives for as long as they’ve told stories. Dream visions, fairy stories, legends and fabulation of all kinds have been constant human accompaniments. But the phrase ‘speculative fiction’ tends to refer now to a particular kind of story-telling, one concerned with exploring the possibilities of a world that works in very different ways to our own.
This sounds a lot like ‘science-fiction’, and the differences between the two terms has occupied many people on the internet long into the night. Marek Oziewicz has a useful short overview of the different things to which speculative fiction might refer to, which is the kind of conceptual accounting that Donna Haraway dissolves majestically within her methodological approach of ‘SF’, invoking “science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far” (Staying with the Trouble, p. 2) as she weaves a path into understanding a more-than-human present. My sense of speculative fiction centres on the sense of possibility it engenders, a feeling of going beyond the rules of the game and leaving me somewhere I don’t quite understand. In my personal speculative fiction canon are writers like Jeff Noon, Emily St John Mandel, Tade Thomson, Yoko Tawada, Marlon James, Mike Harrison and Matthew de Abaitua, though I don’t know how many of them would prefer to be thought of as something else.
"Microorganisms: A Sculptural Garment Exploration" by Brendan O'Shaughnessy, 2020
There is something about SF that makes people want to put it to work. Promoting the UK’s National Space Policy in 2015, the then Secretary of State Sajid Javid was quoted saying “Historically we haven’t been a major player in space programmes, this policy will change that because, in the words of my hero Mr Spock, to do anything else would be highly illogical”. I mentioned last time that businesses and consultancies are turning to SF ideas and authors to help them imagine their future. Rob Kitchen describes how science fiction offers academics a different sort of venue for presenting a set of arguments and working through ideas (something he and colleagues put into practice in How to Run a City Like Amazon). In Economic Science Fictions William Davies convened a group to walk a similar line between story-telling and criticism in order to explore possible alternative economic orders.
Within futures and foresight, science fiction prototyping has become established as an approach to developing future scenarios: the notion of “worldbuilding”, borrowed from science fiction, is also gaining prominence in the field. But this instrumental approach to science fiction, belies the utterly central place it has within the imagination of futures researchers, whether at the Singularity University end of things or closer to where Le Guin and Butler worked. For many of us in the UK, our interest in the future was sparked by the work of authors like Nicholas Fisk or John Christopher, TV like The Changes or Captain Zep, and the marvellous Usborne guide to the future. Perhaps the drive to encounter new ways of being in the world isn’t future-facing at all, but a desire to return to childhood wonder and possibility.
We’re looking for a way of escaping from imaginaries, but these sci-fi worlds just as often reproduce existing ways of understanding the world. Like design, and scenarios, there’s nothing necessarily speculative about ‘speculative fiction’. Maybe we need to think more carefully about what speculation entails.
A number of authors (like Alex Wilkie and colleagues, or Luciana Parisi) have been doing just that, drawing on ideas from process philosophy and pragmatism to think about the future in ways that go beyond extrapolation and the calculation of risks, and that help us to think about the role ideas of the future play in our actions. At the heart of this approach are two core ideas. First, that much of our activity is governed by habit: as people who grew up and who live in society, we have accumulated a set of dispositions, a loose collection of habitual responses that we draw on unthinkingly when anticipating what might be coming our way. These dispositions, what the French sociologist Bourdieu called ‘habitus’, or the ‘rules of the game’, fit particular social settings and circumstances. But when the present circumstances are too different from those in which our dispositions were developed—when the game changes—our expectations and anticipations fail. The world demands new thinking of us. It requires that we come up with different ways of thinking, that we experiment with new ways of relating to the world—that we speculate.
Second, this speculation is available to us as a response because of a particular quality of the world. The present contains, always, the possibility of the future within it: it is always (in Martin Savransky’s phrase) “unfinished”, with multiple futures immanent within it. This ontological position comes from various currents in the philosophy of William James, Charles Peirce, and in particular Alfred North Whitehead, who positions speculation as a fundamental feature of the world, a necessary element in the process of new things coming to be. To think speculatively is to accept an invitation from the world to relate to it in a different way, to be “lured” in Whitehead’s term, and to understand that in the process of changing how you relate to the world you also make it different. Speculation, then, is not about simply imagining something new in the privacy of your head—it’s a intervention in the world, one that you (and it) are carrying out as part of the same process of imagining it.
For researchers developing speculative methods, this implies a departure from a more traditional methodological position. Parisi, in the chapter linked above, suggests a move from thinking to feeling, from facts to potential, from observation to imagination, and, ultimately, moving beyond a notion of empirical research that relies on a distinction between the object of enquiry and the methods used to apprehend it, towards one that recognises how objects and methods might both be transformed by each other.
So speculation is quite distinct from imagination. To speculate is to somehow exceed established ways of thinking about what may be, to go beyond existing ways of understanding the world and, through experimentation, change it by developing new ones. In futures work it’s clear that, despite our appetite for calling things ‘speculative’, we’re not necessarily doing this kind of speculation—and, on a practical level, that’s probably ok. There are different reasons for thinking about the future, after all. But if we’re thinking about the future of something in order to change it, or to bring it out from under the existing futures we already have for it, perhaps we ought to aim for something like the last kind of speculation.
For heritage, thinking speculatively might mean different things. It might be as simple as imagining possible new forms of heritage (existing things re-imagined as being heritage, or new material forms and substances that might need new kinds of care and protection). It might mean thinking about new mechanisms of heritage, new ways of passing things on (for example, new family structures or new genetic technologies might both change what we understand as inheritance). Thinking speculatively with heritage might help us remember that the novel things we bring into being are our responsibility and will need our care. And, fundamentally, understanding heritage as a speculative object might mean seeing it as produced through its relation to all the other things in the world, and to imagine it always reaching after new kinds of relation. What possible new forms are immanent within it? What new relations might it be lured towards? What does heritage want to become?
The Royal Society has a new report on ‘animate materials’, "human-made materials that emulate the properties of living systems”: how would these decay? Can they manage their own decline? What wider networks support their self-repair? (Also includes a timeline that goes to 4000) ❡ Robin Sloan (inventor of actually new media) has created the amulet, a new form of poetic crypto art that depends for its value on the nature of the digital fingerprint that affirms its identity. Crypto art will always be a bad thing but I think the idea’s amazing: pareidolia, synchroncity, cultural production and archiving all in one tiny haiku-like bundle. ❡ Socially-distanced maypole-dancing robots ❡ IKEA are issuing disassembly instructions for their furniture and aim to have all their products repurposeable or recyclable by 2030: having moved a lot of IKEA furniture from house to house, I thought it was pretty intuitive to dismantle. I wonder if this is a kind of offsetting, claiming an environmental benefit now in light of something someone else will do in the future. ❡ Post-doctoral opportunity to participate in the “de-extinction” of the woolly mammoth
Thanks for reading! If you're interested in the programme, there's more information on how to apply here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/heritage/study/heritage-evidence-foresight-and-policy-msc.