If talk is cheap, then futurists are the cheapest talkers out there. Except not really, because they can get paid a lot of money for their glib, biased prognostications. Imagining futuristic product designs is especially dicey–concepts like Microsoft’s Future Vision look like spit-polished touch-screen theme parks rather than thoughtfully realized worlds. Which is why the best design futurism I’ve ever seen didn’t come from an outfit like Frog or Ideo, but from a weird science-fiction novel written by a neuroscience student-turned technology journalist-turned mobile game developer named Adrian Hon. It’s called A History of the Future in 100 Objects, and in it, Hon does 100 times what high-powered “innovation firms” struggle to pull off even once: depict a realistic near-future in which unpredictable forces of mass and local culture, economics, and politics intersect with design to change the world in ways that designers never envisioned or intended.
Hon’s novel takes the form of a nonfiction history, looking back on the first eight decades of the 21st century from a vantage point in 2082. Each “object” (some are objects, others are ideas or events) warrants a short expository article, no more than a few pages long, which describes the item and explains its significance in context with the world at large that Hon has imagined. “Silent Messaging” describes a descendant of texting that relies on Google Glass-like wearable technology; “UCS Deliverbot” tells how package-delivery-by-drone upended traditional courier companies like FedEx.
All well and good. But Hon doesn’t stop at these mere exercises in clever extrapolation. Almost every article in 100 Objects contains a twist on the superficially “futuristic” item, in which some unintended cultural consequence or socio-economic interaction jerks the design off course and into weird territory. The rise of wearable tech begets black-market “conversation brokers” who harvest the terabytes of incidentally recorded conversations and mine it for profitable scandal or extortion. The Deliverbots disrupt FedEx and decimate millions of jobs, creating unstable economic conditions that foment the spread of a worldwide pseudo-welfare system. Not all of Hon’s vignettes take a dystopian turn, but all of them veer in unpredictable but somehow plausible directions.
And that’s what makes 100 Objects so valuable as design futurism. If it has a theme or message, it’s this: the near future will be weirder than any Ray Kurzweil wannabe lets on. We don’t design the future–it emerges as a chaotic consequence of crisscrossing micro- and macro-interactions, only some of which are intentional. “If there’s anything I’ve learned about history, it’s a sense that contingency affects everything,” Hon tells Co.Design. “The twists in the book are absolutely a reaction to the kind of short-term, starry-eyed technological determinism espoused by those who would benefit from more money being in technology.”
Hon’s favorite “objects” include Locked Simulation Interrogation, in which Oculus Rift-like VR headsets are repurposed by police and intelligence agencies as an insidious new form of “extraordinary rendition“; a javelin hurled by a tech-augmented “Paralympic” athlete in 2040; and The Downvoted, a caste of digital “untouchables” who accrue enough negative “downvotes” from their peers that society chooses to literally not see them, thanks to augmented-reality glasses that everyone wears.
This is the future of design, imagined honestly. It’s not that futuristic technologies will all lead to terrible unintended consequences–or to benign ones. It’s that they’ll lead to anything and everything in between, at the same time. Does that mean futurists and designers should throw up their hands? Of course not. But anyone in the business of inventing the future would do well to read Hon’s novel as a corrective to the notion that our future–or even our present–will predictably and directly unfurl from designers’ good intentions.