A scene from the movie "They Live": A view of a city showing billboards saying "obey", "buy" and so on in all caps.

1+1=3. Everything is true.

14.05.20

Realities are fabricated: by the media, by governments, by big businesses. As designers, we also produce realities and through this formulate truths that influence our future. What do we do with this responsibility?

Reality

50 years ago the American anthropologist Edmund Carpenter visited the island of Papua New Guinea. One of Carpenter’s actions during his visit was heavily criticised by anthropologists. He brought a previously unknown technology to this community: photography. It transported the local population directly into a future they had neither explicitly desired nor imagined. At first, they didn’t even notice the photographs, but after a certain time it “clicked”. They began to wear their own photo on their forehead and to greet the photos instead of the people themselves. Their attention moved away from the person towards the photo. It was directed towards a new reality.

Let’s travel to another part of the globe to a slightly larger island: England, Essex. Ralphie (2) is one of the youngest “influencers” on Instagram. His parents have signed contracts with corporations and guarantee regular Ralphie updates. Everything is staged.

A mother is taking a selfie with her son who is sitting on a bobby car.
Ralphie’s mother is taking a picture to add to their Instagram feed. © Triangle News/Joe Newman

Something fundamental has happened since the events in Papua New Guinea: photos have become social. Suddenly it is more important what fits this staged reality. This newly created reality increasingly blurs the boundaries between what we humans are and what we pretend to be. Not only for those who consume the content, but also for those who produce it. Lifestyle vlogger Summer McKeen recounts her experience as an influencer:

People started viewing YouTubers as characters in their favourite show rather than real people.

Technology and its ability to alter reality

Who can tell whether a photo shows reality or not? Photography always “lies” somehow: through selection, manipulation… even more so since changes have become cheaper, or can even be created artificially. It is becoming increasingly easier to produce false realities. Not only for a chosen few, but also for the broad masses. This changes the rules of the game, just like Photoshop did many years ago. Photography not only captures the realities; it also creates them. We have hardly learned to read Photoshop manipulations or at least developed a certain mistrust when something does not quite correspond to reality.

But what happens when reality is no longer obvious? Suddenly there is no need for cameras anymore, we generate people who simply don’t exist (anymore). This has already been done: In “Star Wars – Rogue One” Peter Cushing was “revived” as Grand Moff Tarkin via CGI. We do not only generate people, but also new ethical questions, which we have never had to deal with before. And the problem is not just about ethics but about how realities are fabricated. On the one hand, these are exploited by companies, on the other hand, they manoeuvre our thinking more and more into a kind of reality tunnel. In this tunnel, we think only single-track according to the rules of the companies who have manufactured this reality.

Invent the future with “Universes of the Mind”

Is this the future we want? Why are we doing this? Are we looking for truth? As Philip K. Dick, an American science fiction writer, says, “Universes of the Mind” are being produced by the media, big corporations and other groups:

I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And, it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

Are we supposed to trust these people to build our future? They promise that everything will be fine. But: Whoever creates reality controls the truth. What role do we as designers play in this? To create these “Universes of the Mind”, which is a reality that has not yet come into being, it takes imagination. An imagination that anticipates a possible future.

Why should we believe in such a future? Reinier de Graaf does research on predictions of the future and found that the most accurate predictions about future technology are being made in the realm of art. (There is a certain irony in the fact that politics have pretty much been wrong on all counts.)

A grid with green and red dots. The intersection of the domains art and technology shows the most green dots.
When the arts and technology are paired up, the most accurate predictions of the future can be made.

Technology and the arts seem to be the closest to the future, and therefore to reality. Is the exchange between technology and art not a discourse between what is possible and what is supposedly impossible? Sometimes the truth is best revealed through fiction. And that’s where science fiction fits in.

The truth in science fiction

Science fiction is frequently seen as a flight from reality. Quite on the contrary, it is a way to ask questions about big, important issues in our society: be they political, religious, ethical, and even scientific. Science fiction is a viable way to fathom the truth with fiction.

In the film “They live” John wanders through America as a day labourer. After a brutal police raid against a group of marginalised people, he finds a box of sunglasses in the ruins. He discovers that they show a very different picture of the American metropolis in which he finds himself. Suddenly certain questions arise: Which reality is true? The one with glasses or the one without? What is truth? What is “only” reality? Philosopher Jean Baudrillard pondered on the fleeting description of reality:

We live today in an age of ‘simulation’ – a social condition in which signs and reality become increasingly indistinguishable.

Are we constantly seeing a lie? There’s a false dichotomy: “Tell me the truth” is seen as the opposite of “Don’t lie”. Not everyone has these glasses. For those who don’t wear the glasses, the truth looks different and no one can convince them otherwise.

The film “Bladerunner” is about a future in which mankind has gained the ability to create artificial humans. At several points a procedure called “Voigt-Kampf-Test” is shown, which is supposed to find out if someone is a replicant (an artificial human) or a human. The person is asked several questions and their reaction is recorded and evaluated. This procedure is reminiscent of the Turing test. In “Bladerunner”, this test is about finding out whether memories have been implanted. Philosopher John Locke raises some thoughts on memories, just as the film does:

Our memories are what make us who we are.

If our memories are not real now, how can we still say we’re human and not replicants? What happens if an AI suddenly creates memories that no one has ever experienced? A world in which we soon won’t know what’s real is created.

What happens when memories are destroyed like in the movie “1984”, where those in charge of the “Ministry of Truth” decide what is and what is not valid? Winston, the protagonist of the film, works for this ministry. Every day he burns writing and thus ideas that do not serve the interests of the ruling party. When his doubts about the party’s stories are discovered, he is tortured in an attempt to convince him of “the truth”. But that truth is actually only the desired reality. The question that he is asked during this torture is the inspiration of my text: “What is the result of 2+2?”. At some point Winston gives up and lets the torturer tell him the right result: 5. Now let’s consider: does this mean that “2+2=5” is true? If we flood everything with artificial images, at some point we no longer know what is true. We suddenly question the true images.

Science fiction like “1984” is there to envision the future. It shows us that realities can be fabricated, manipulated. But the underlying truth remains the same. We create it consciously or unconsciously. But if reality is controlled and staged by certain parties, that is not much different than what happens in the “Ministry of Truth”. We as designers also use various methods to represent and filter reality. But what kind of reality are we creating?

A slide from the presentation: Realty is separated by a layer of abstraction, filters and metaphors from the truth.
Reality is always masked by abstraction, filters and metaphors.

User interface society

Our reality is constructed. Anyone who thinks that we really delete a file when we drag it into the bin icon or that we create files and put them in folders is wrong. Our society and its constraints is a system that is just as a constructed. Another reflection from the Sci-Fi world about our reality: The Ferengi in the Star Trek movies are us, today. “The primary goal in every Ferengi’s life is to make a profit through business of any kind.” The Star Trek heroes, on the other hand, no longer have to talk about economic constraints like money but can focus on their mission. Consciously or unconsciously, we want to please the system we live in. We are all “system pleasers”. We want to please reality, not necessarily the truth. Reality is comfort zone. Truth is discomfort zone. We can apply this in different situations: in relationships, at work, to global problems like the climate crisis and so on. We think that if we follow rules, we will do what is “true”. However, this is only one of many possible realities. So, who shapes this reality? This is the new question for designers. Because that’s where the answer of the future lies; the future we want.

Utopia – design of the future?

Manu Saadia muses on economics in the Star Trek universe:

What would the world look like if everyone had everything they wanted or needed?

Who has ever asked this question? What would our society look like if everybody had everything? Our capitalist economy only works with the idea that there is scarcity. This idea of scarcity leads to fear and we no longer see the “big picture”. We sit in a system manufactured by outsiders. It doesn’t have to be this way. But we have to use our imagination to imagine another reality. A future without the economic constraints. You may say that that’s a Utopia. But isn’t utopia simply an imagined version of the future? We must fabricate realities for ourselves instead of having companies do it for us. Because these companies have an economic interest. The truth is: we don’t. People have human needs, not economic needs.

Sci-fi author Namwali Serpell writes in an essay in the New York Times about the future:

We [writers] create an immersive simulation of the future that we can all experience and look back on, so that we might decide together whether we want these dreams to come true after all.

In order to create the future we want, we have to be able to imagine it, and then we can figure out together whether we want that future. When was the last time you mused about what a utopian form of our society might look like in the distant future?

It doesn’t have to be the great revolution. Not the anarchy against the system – “rage against the machine”. Nor does it have to be love. But if we aim to shape the future the way we want it to be, then we must be able to imagine it. How is this supposed to work? With one of the oldest technologies of all: stories. Storytelling is our tool to imagine a utopian future. Truth and reality are design material. Hence, designers can create realities. They need to use the current vacuum to learn how to create a new reality through the technology of storytelling.