The Future Is Now

We live in a time where passports officially recognize “cyborgs”, easily accessible/affordable tech can live-output your emotions to screen, and dream imagery as detailed as letters can be saved to digital files. Organs (and guns) can be 3D printed, and quadriplegics are walking through human/machine convergence. The future will demand a new set of rules and there’s a deficit of individuals prepared to help shape, interpret, and humanize the opportunities therein.

It’s not just that our world is evolving – we are as well. This current generation of (technology enabled) teenagers is the first cohort to have a change in their brain patterns since our ancestors walked the plains of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Decisions that are being made today cut deep grooves – cultural, technological, and ethical. Much like evolution, the phenomenon whereby decisions of the past irrevocably shape our present and future is called path dependency. Think QWERTY keyboards – notoriously poor design for human consumption, yet ubiquitous. Regardless of which theory you believe – to make the job of telegraph operators easier or to minimize the wear on mechanical parts – the flawed QWERTY design has dominated keyed interfaces for generations, despite the many attempts to reinvent it.

A couple of months ago, I was speaking to a panel of human/machine convergence leaders about the moral consequences of creating a techno-caste of the wealthy and privileged. They admitted that it would happen, that it’s an important concern, but ultimately one that culture will “probably work out in a generation or two”. This pattern of being unengaged with implications outside the immediate scope of individuals/groups is fairly pervasive – innocent or otherwise.

Designers can see things through a lens that other disciplines often don’t put a premium on: not only how to shape elegance and beauty into mediums, but how to invest purpose that resonates with people. We communicate – a skill that takes a fundamental level of empathy. Thinking about the purpose of things we touch and engage is systemic. Some genres may not have immediate design requirements, but we should be aware that conversations are happening that we’re not part of.

Knowing how to pour a marketing activation into a world that has pervasive machine assisted vision is an important leap (albeit a fairly straight-forward one) that will be within all our careers. Just like wearable tech; a decade ago, it was relegated to near-future science fiction, but designers envisioned their purpose and engineers fulfilled on that vision. The challenge we will face is what’s presently emerging doesn’t have clean analogues (ex: there won’t be “I wish this watch could…”)

I game with a paediatric neurologist in Silicon Valley (who specializes in brain/ machine implants to restore fine motor control). He often talks of how his industry is desperate for collaboration – most especially with artists and designers. Presenters I’ve spoken to at SXSW and TEDx have echoed those sentiments. As a group, precious few of our community understand the landscape of what will be. Imagine designing without understanding line/form, colour, or typography. Imagine only having the most rudimentary understanding of the tools of your craft… The greatest imperative that we have as designers presently is to broaden our conceptual lexicon to include things typically not associated with our discipline.

In the none-too-distant future, our canvases will expand across the internet of things, draw upon big data, and be driven by artificial intelligence (or at least, highly sophisticated algorithms). Our interfaces will include the human body – with salient context, computer enhanced vision, and human/machine convergence. We will wrestle with the ethics of what we (are asked to) do and need to be able to lucidly discuss/understand the implications our decisions. The boundaries of art and audience will blur – we will engage across all their physical senses with hyper-personalized context.

We will be the generation to shape a cohort of future path dependencies.

All this begs the obvious question of whether we – as designers, artists, and (ideally) visionaries – have allowed ourselves to be coddled into yielding the future to others. Or do we have an appetite to engage the world around us with vibrant, relentless curiosity, knowing that virtually anything we can envision we will be able to create?”

This is a designer’s call to arms: Participate in shaping the future or accept one that has been (brutally) tailored to fit the interests of those who have invested in it. Our future needs us now – and so does everyone else’s.

First Published in Applied Arts, Photo: morgeFile