same as it ever was

Future Tense – The Challenge of Imagining Alternative Futures

Michael Smyth, researcher in the space between people and technology, from Interaction Design Research Group, Edinburgh Napier University, discusses the challenges of imagining alternative futures.

Foto: Michael Smyth

“I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come.” (Pete Shelley, 1978)[1]

So why is it so difficult to imagine futures? Not the futures set in galaxies far far away, but the ones connected to the present that lie tantalisingly just beyond the horizon. Futures still tethered to variants of today’s infrastructure. This essay will consider the role of politics and technology and how they shape and influence the imagination of futures. 

When people ask me about my research interests, my stock answer is that I am interested in the space between people and technology. While essentially true, this answer masks the complexity of that space and how it has grown to encompass so many aspects of our lived experience. Consider how the range and number of devices that we carry with us on a regular basis has increased, together with the amount of technology that is embedded in the physical environment, and how this has created an ever more complex design space. For example, as I sit on the bus going to work, which I tracked via an app from my flat prior to catching it, I am tapping these words into my phone. In my bag is a laptop, various cables and connectors and a pen and pencil but nothing to write on. Oh, and I am listening to music via headphones. What is interesting is that I am no different to the majority of my fellow passengers. I am just another urbanite, moving from place to place engaged in peripatetic working, consuming, or creating data or connecting with others.

There can be little doubt that, while technology has increased access to data, the amount of data available is growing exponentially and shows no signs of stopping. The combination of data growth and connectivity irrespective of location has created a complex and ever shifting technological landscape. Against the backdrop of constant change and the promise of technological solutions just beyond the horizon, the effect has been to make it difficult to imagine alternate futures. Mark Fisher described the situation when he wrote that “the future is now characterised as a series of technological upgrades.” [2]

This piece will explore some of the reasons that might have contributed to this situation and will critically reflect on how designers can respond to the challenges of imagining futures. Why it is imperative that educators equip students with tools and methods that enable critical thinking, as it is the role of the young to challenge our assumptions and preconceptions about the role that products and services play in everyday life.

Promised Futures

In the early days of teaching Human Computer Interaction (HCI), I used to talk about the “digital world” as if somehow it was separated from, although connected to, the physical world. Today, that separation appears somewhat antiquated as technology has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lived experience. Somehow hiding in plain sight and only being revealed with and through interactions. 

Over time, technology has become synonymous with communication. Either communication with other humans or increasingly communication with artificial agents. At the touch of a few buttons on a device that we carry around with us seemingly all the time, we can talk to people across the globe. One way to consider technological artefacts is to think of them as nouns, the objects that manifest as products and services through which we interact directly. Whereas the consequences or effects of these actions can be considered as verbs. Verbs reflect needs or desires that remain relatively constant, while the nouns, or means through which these are achieved, change over time. For example, while it is challenging to predict the form and function that technologies might take fifty years in the future, it is safe to say that most of us will still enjoy the momentary connection of a stolen glance or a shared moment with a stranger in the street. As the desire for communication and connection with others is central to the lived experience, it should be no surprise that it has become synonymous with technology. Consequently, technology and the always connected promise that it offers has become integral to our imaginary futures. Imagining a post-technology future “shatters” rather than “stretches” what Auger refers to as “the plausibility that will in turn elicit a powerful level of audience reaction.”[3]

While the technology corporations appear to have embedded their products and services into our collective imagined futures, the prevailing political landscape, whether that takes the form of neoliberalism or the shapeshifting world of post political populism, can be characterised by attempts to manage the present by promising visions of a near future. For example, how recent UK governments attempted to solve the problem of managing borders between the UK and the EU, while also not reintroducing boarding on the island of Ireland. The solution was to promise a future of “frictionless” borders that would rely on a technical solution that could somehow determine all the contents of traffic between the UK and the EU without the need for customs checks. While this was questioned in the media, it could also be thought of as a design fiction for political expediency that relies on an imagined future technology.[4]

Adam Curtis, in his film entitled Hypernormalisation, suggests that as an economic and political philosophy, neoliberalism seemed to offer the possibility of “a world without politics.”[5] In short, a much simpler world in which the free exercise of market forces would somehow resolve all political issues in the most democratic way possible, that is through the commercial choices of people. Thus, Curtis goes on to argue that neoliberal politicians in the West have stopped trying to change the world for the better: instead, they have set about trying to “manage” the world as a stable system without politics. Avoidance of risk has become engrained in politics resulting in it becoming more about managing the post-political world. Curtis suggests that since the 1970s, there has been a growing disconnect between this rhetoric and the lived experience of people, and this credibility gap has led to what he refers to as “hypernormalisation.” The situation where politicians and citizens have become resigned to maintaining the pretence of a functioning society. As a result, it has become more difficult to imagine alternative futures against a backdrop of constant promises of short-term benefits just beyond the horizon that ultimately rarely materialise.

The combined effect of technology and politics has been to offer promises about futures that have dampened down discontent with the present, and created a situation where there is an inability to imagine alternate futures. These ideas are echoed through the Croatian Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, as the work seeks to make us question how external factors such as climate change or the global pandemic can “colonise” the idea of futures and inhibit our ability to imagine alternatives that are possible, probable, or even desirable. Set against this backdrop of uncertainty and change, it should be no surprise that orientating towards the past for signals about our futures has become increasingly popular. The relationship between the past and the present and how that interaction influences design thinking when speculating about possible futures is undoubtedly complex.

Lost Futures

The nature of this relationship between the past and the future was articulated by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida who coined the phrase “Hauntology”.[6] What he meant by this term is that the present is haunted by the metaphorical “ghosts” of lost futures. The concept raises the question of how “spectres” of alternative futures influence current and historical discourse and if “haunting” has real effects on how we conceive possible futures. In short, our visions of possible futures are always bound up with our concerns of the present which are, in turn, connected to the past through these “spectres.”

More recently, critics such as Mark Fisher have discussed Hauntology in the context of describing contemporary culture’s persistent re-cycling of retro aesthetics and what he considered to be an inability to escape old social forms.[7] His position is captured in his characterisation of 21st century culture as being “20th century culture distributed over high-speed networks”.[8] For Fisher, creative and cultural production needs to either explicitly reference the techniques of the past in the means of production or risk being implicitly tethered to the past. In his 2012 paper entitled “What is Hauntology?”, Fisher frames an argument that there is no leading edge of innovation anymore and that we are living in what Franco ‘Biffo’ Berardi referred to as “after the future”.[9] Fisher states that “what haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the 21st century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the 20th century taught us to anticipate”.[10] From the perspective of Speculative Design, Anthony Dunne has discussed the idea of “broken futures”[11] which I suspect refers to the promises of past futures and how these have failed to be delivered or, what was in fact delivered was a pale shadow of the original concept. In a similar way, James Auger refers to “alternate presents” or “lost futures” when considering different development paths, so rather that asking the question “what if?” it is reframed into asking “why are things the way they are?”[12]

This question explicitly acknowledges the relationship of the past to the present and provides a framing through which to criticise the present and suggest possible futures. While the past can offer nostalgia, it is only when we accept the past that we can properly move forward. Speculative design, in many ways, is as much about understanding the past as it is about imagining futures.

Technological Futures

Technology has become integral to our lived experiences; it is the medium through which much of the world is experienced. It provides access to services that enable us to navigate the space, meet fellow inhabitants of these spaces and how we access the services and experiences that are contained within these spaces. But has technology made us too complacent, too content with the present, creating a situation where it is increasingly difficult to imagine alternative futures? This is despite the growth of media data sets and the diversity of tools available to search such repositories.

In the time that it takes to attempt to recall the name of a TV programme from our past, it is now possible to view original footage on a myriad of different platforms and services. These tools have the effect of making time plastic and stretchable, where the past has never been more accessible. 

Fisher refers to this as “technologised” time, where the past and the future are subject to ceaseless de and re-composition.[13] Time becomes compressed and, in effect begins to disappear much in the same way as Marc Augé talks about “non-place” when referring to airports, retail parks and chain stores as places that have become generic and have lost their meaning and connection to us.[14] Now we can add “non-time” into that discourse. The pattern of time was also a theme that was explored in the Croatian Pavilion. For example, seasonal rather than technological patterns and how these might effect change in production and consumption, but also what they might imply for the design tools that we have at our disposal.

There is now a new generation of artificial Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). These employ neural network architectures to generate new data based on learned patterns. As well as generating images of human faces and creating images from text, GANs can generate entirely new data making them core to many leading-edge AI systems. Many of these systems are now integrated into the early phases of the design cycle where they are used to create a myriad of concepts based on existing datasets. Part of the appeal is the capability of seemingly endless recombination of images of the past based on the promise of insight through serendipity. In short, an automated cut up for a new generation.

So, what is the effect of the exponential growth of searchable and retrievable data; the growth of publicly available AI based tools that can manipulate and endlessly re-purpose such data into new forms and the allure of nostalgia? Slowly and imperceptibly, we have become beguiled by the increasing capacity to store, organise, access, and share vast amounts of cultural data. The laudable aim of data driven innovation needs to explicitly take on board the prophetic words of Berardi and Fisher and, what these mean for the design and development of technological tools, as these tools might have the unintended effect of dampening the very creativity that is central to the endeavour.

William Deresiewicz recently wrote that AI operates by making high-probability choices: the most likely next word, in the case of written texts.[15] Creatives do not, they continue to operate in the world of low-probability choices. They make choices that are unexpected and that, Deresiewicz argues is what originality is, by definition: a low-probability choice, a choice that has never been made. AIs cannot sense the world, see connections, and make idiosyncratic leaps, they don’t experience sights or sounds, no joys or pains and ultimately no awareness. So rather than fearing the rise of AIs, educators must encourage students to develop curiosity, empathy and criticality. But most of all a desire to make things better, in short, the same as it ever was.


This work was funded by the AHRC Creative Industries Clusters Programme Award reference number: AH/S002782/1.

Dr Michael Smyth is a Professor in the Interaction Design Research Group, Edinburgh Napier University, UK. He researches and teaches in the fields of interaction design and human computer interaction and is intrigued by the space between people and technology. He is a Co-Director of the Edinburgh Creative Informatics Partnership funded under the UKRI Creative Industries Clusters Programme [CICP] and managed by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council [AHRC]. Previously, he was a Primary Investigator on the SpeculativeEDU project funded by Erasmus+, the MAZI Project funded under the EU H2020 CAPSSI initiative, and the Primary Co-ordinator of the UrbanIxD project funded under FET Open.

[1] Shelley, P. (1978). Nostalgia. Love Bites. United Artists Records. UAG 30197. UK.

[2] Fisher, M. (2014) Hauntology, nostalgia and lost futures. Interview by Mannucci Mattioli and Valerio Mattioli for Nero. In K-Punk The collected unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016). Darren Ambrose (ed). Repeater; New edition (2018).

[3] Auger, J. (2013). Speculative Design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity. Vol 24. Issue 1. 11-35.

[4] O’Carroll, L. (2018). Technology cannot make post-Brexit Irish border frictionless, says academic. The Guardian. Wednesday 7thMarch, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/mar/07/technology-cannot-make-post-brexit-irish-border-frictionless-says-academic

[5] Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Adam Curtis (dir). BBC iPlayer. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p04b183c/hypernormalisation

[6] Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt: The Work of Mourning and the New International. London, Routledge.

[7] Fisher, M. (2012). What is Hauntology? Film Quarterly. Vol 66. No 1 (Fall 2012). University of California Press. 16–24.

[8] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts in My Life: Writings on Depression: Hauntology and Lost Futures. London, Zero Books.

[9] Berardi, F. (2011). After the Future. Genosko, G. and Thorburn, N. (eds). AK Press.

[10] Fisher, M. (2012). What is Hauntology? Film Quarterly. Vol 66. No 1 (Fall 2012). University of California Press. 16–24.

[11] Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.

[12] Auger, J. (2013). Speculative Design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity. Vol 24. Issue 1. 11-35.

[13] Fisher, M. (2013). The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 5(2). 42–55.

[14] Augé, M. (2009). Non-Places: Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso Books.

[15] Deresiewicz, W. (2023). Why AI Will Never Rival Human Creativity. Persuasion. https://www.persuasion.community/p/why-ai-will-never-rival-human-creativity