Designing for the Apocalypse

C Sven Johnson @ 09-04-2008

OK ladies and gents, please give a warm welcome to our second new non-fiction columnist here at FuturismicSven Johnson.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Sven is what I might call a philosopher of design (although I image he’ll hate me having done so in public). In his inaugural column he gets all eschatological on our asses and asks whether, as a species, we collectively design our own doom.

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I tried.

I really did try.

Yet opening the throttle on the information superhighway didn’t resolve a damn thing. For each hopeful scenario applied to a newly announced technology – my attempt to at least initially bring an upbeat and offbeat interpretation to “Future Imperfect” – I invariably encountered a fly in the telepod. And we all know how Brundlefly turned out.

Allow me to explain. This all started with limiting my current range of discussion, at least in my first contribution here, to something with which I could comfortably claim some expertise: designing junk for mass consumption. Futurismic‘s readership being tech savvy, I didn’t want to step too quickly beyond those very limited bounds for fear of having my ego bruised.

Now because of my professional activities, I’ve a long and intimate familiarity with Gibson’s oft-quoted observation regarding “the street” and its flair for re-purposing things. While some might, I don’t take issue with the activity, so long as a consumer doesn’t add their name to the Darwin Awards list as a result. That said, being prudent, many of the more liability conscious among us tend to spend time imagining the worst in order to avoid potentially career-damaging issues. I can devote hours during development attempting to answer one simple question: “What’s the worst damage some idiot could do with this thing?”

In that way I suppose product designers are a little like futurists who, I imagine, routinely raise a knowing eyebrow and in a practiced James Bond impersonation inform distinguished listeners, “It’s the business of the future to be dangerous”. The difference being that it’s the business of product designers to assume people are inherently dangerous … mostly to themselves.

Real futurists worry about Big Problems. I, on the other hand, worry some bonehead will try to brush his teeth with a toilet bowl scrubber and somehow manage to choke to death.

So having decided to frame things a bit differently this time and turn a regularly pessimistic professional activity into something a bit more optimistic, I was dismayed to discover this to be a thoroughly challenging exercise. For every positive, my mind immediately offered up a negative. No matter which amazing new technological innovation crossed my feed, I almost always somehow found a way to put in doubt any long-term positive impact.

For example, a month or so ago in my first attempt to spin things in a positive manner, I read news of power-generating nano-fibers which could be woven into fabrics. But as seemingly benign as this sounded, visions of healthy, active children happily running about to ensure continuing operation of their future electronic gizmos quickly gave way to unruly, heavily-muscled thugs bouncing uncontrollably in classroom desks delivering electrical shocks to one another. The future of bullying, complete with fallout.

Daily, as I read of new technological breakthroughs from rail-launched satellites to self-assembling organic transistors, I invariably managed to assemble a less-than-rosy futuristic narrative for many of them … usually by injecting one element into the mix: us. Of course, humans making a mess of things is an old story, but a week or so later I had what might have been a minor epiphany.

During this exercise a former colleague contacted me, and while conversing we stumbled around the periphery of a hot topic among some communities: design thinking. His “pro” approach was that designers are trained, and my “con” approach is that the whole idea is elitist crap and that each and every human being is born a designer.

Shortly after our conversation I noticed a comment here on Futurismic, “Man, I love post-apocalyptic tales.” It then occurred to me that maybe we weren’t simply stumbling toward oblivion; that perhaps all of us are, in fact, designing both our individual and collective extinction. After all, the obsession with human extinction is all around us; in our art, our holy books, our government institutions, our entertainment, our product. These are all designed things. Things for which “the street” finds its own, inevitable and sometimes inexorable purpose. Thus, perhaps a predetermined extinction blueprint is buried deep inside us and, like clockwork oranges, we’re simply going through the motions.

If I were qualified, I might offer the following hypothesis: embedded in the human genome is an “apocalypse” failsafe compelling us to design a future which ensures our own extinction for the good of the planet.

Good thing I’m not qualified. I don’t like feeling guilty about wanting to see a new Mad Max movie. Perhaps I should.

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Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

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2 Responses to “Designing for the Apocalypse”

  1. BenHM3 says:

    A very interesting article, I enjoyed the new perspectives you gave me, as well as the ones we share.
    May I suggest that for all your cynicism of the Teeming Masses’ abilities to misuse a product, you have given us far too much credit for prescience. I think the common design is always that mixture of nobility and naivety that we have when we create. The re-purposing for the apocalypse is simply the lowest-common-denominator in the Teeming Masses’ application. That is, it’s hard work to remain optimistic in an uncaring Universe; much easier to hide behind the purported masters’ ritual and be assured the impossible reward will be yours.

    If I may, it’s terribly easy to fall into believing we’re self-destructive especially when you spend your days contemplating the myriad ways someone can be harmed by a 1/4×20 carriage bolt. The future remains brighter than those outcomes writ large simply because the population is so large; we’ll survive as much due to our intellect and cooperation as our ubiquity. Now I don’t want to get all sunshine and bluebirds here, but I think we could have a great dinner conversation about thermodynamics pessimism ignores the unlimited resource of human creativity.

    And ultimately, no matter how unlikely, the better designs tend to survive.

  2. csven says:

    I suspect the tongue-in-cheek level of seriousness didn’t quite communicate itself; however, for the sake of argument, perhaps my not feeling guilty (i.e. “Perhaps I should” but I don’t) indicates a natural optimism which persists even after a career spent contemplating the worst in an uncaring Universe. Maybe… maybe… we’re all programmed to self-destruct for the greater good, and deep down that makes us happy.