Other Worlds

July 30, 2019

The first in a series of historical fragments for Speculative Design by James Auger, Michael Smyth, Ingi Helgason and Julian Hanna.

Speculative Design has many antecedents, sharing family resemblances with other approaches to future-formation, technological aggrandisement or critique and the building of other worlds. A more rigorous historical analysis of speculative imaginaries (in relevant contexts) is helpful in not only understanding how they are constructed but also in acknowledging the complex social, cultural and political agendas that direct and motivate their existence.

Alternative configurations (of elements) of the real-world have been presented across a variety of contexts, using diverse media and for a multitude of different reasons.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema the philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek describes the viewer’s reading (of cinema), stating that, “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality – we have to fictionalise it.” These “coordinates” (A in fig.1) typically relate to the individual, social, cultural, political, historical, technological, and scientific dynamics of contemporary life. Speculations typically focus on one particular aspect and extrapolate to create a modified version of the world. The vector that drives the extrapolation acts on behalf of particular agendas or interests – these shape the new imaginary (B in fig.1) with the ultimate aim of attempting to influence (aspects of) the future world (C in fig.1). Good speculations “stretch” rather than “shatter” the coordinates, ensuring plausibility and in turn eliciting a powerful level of audience reaction. In this essay we will examine a selection of historical speculations with the aim of unravelling and exposing some of the political, corporate or social agendas behind them, analysing the techniques and design of the actual speculations and, with the benefit of hindsight, revealing the impact they had (or not) on the real world.

World fairs

World fairs are a caricature of a nation at a specific moment in time. Captured in the dramatic and provocative pavilions are the nation’s cultural dreams and values, its spirit and philosophy. Behind the façades, however, complex political and corporate agendas are at play. Disruptive technologies are exploited for their (positive) transformative potential – guiding (or manipulating) visitors towards the state’s version of a better future.

Futurama (1939)

The classic example is Futurama, General Motor Corporation’s pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Designed by Norman Bel Geddes, the attraction featured a 35,738 square foot (3320 m2) diorama describing a vision of the United States set 20 years in the future.

“Let us look then to Norman Bel Geddes, to such men of imagination, our practical visionaries who can build the world of tomorrow today.”

Futurama press release

The technology that represented the origin of Bel Geddes’ speculation (A in fig.1) was the internal combustion engine, his client General Motors’ core product. The aeroplanes, automobiles and ships that were built around such engines were, at the time, rapidly becoming symbols of the new machine age. Streamline Moderne (as it became known) represented freedom and escape – both in the physical sense, through the action of the engine, and in the metaphorical, through the sleek teardrop styling that gave the impression that the objects were moving even when they were standing still. Designers were, for the first time, beginning to play an instrumental role in linking technological progress to the notion of a better future – all in the service of American corporate capitalism.

Nothing exemplifies this period of techno-optimism better than Futurama. It described a further extrapolation of the potential of the engine—outwards across time and space. The super sleek motorcars needed a place to exploit their potential for speed outside of the claustrophobic cities. Bel Geddes presented the concept of super-highways: these would connect America’s cities with revolutionary run-offs, allowing the cars to join and leave the motorways without slowing down, and in turn facilitating the sprawl of a perfect picket-fenced suburbia. For visitors whose outlook had been influenced by the Great Depression, this future was compelling. It was a place that was clearly better than the present, and American consumers bought into the dream. As a result, many aspects of the diorama became reality.

Futurama was of course motivated by other interests than simply creating a better future, not least the selling of a particular political and corporate agenda—interests that are strikingly revealed in E. L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair. As a family leaves the ride, the father says: “’It is a wonderful vision, all those highways and all those radio-driven cars. Of course, highways are built with public money,’ he said after a moment. ‘When the time comes General Motors isn’t going to build the highways, the federal government is. With money from us taxpayers.’ He smiled. ‘So General Motors is telling us what they expect from us: we must build them the highways so they can sell us the cars.’” (Doctorow 1985: 285).

Futurama provides a valuable historical lesson, in that through hindsight we can compare the promise of a corporate future with the reality that came to pass. Highways were built and millions of cars were sold. But Bel Geddes’s vision—a vision constrained by his role as a designer working for a corporate client with the brief to glamourise and sell the technology—neglected to present the potential shortcomings. These shortcomings included not only traffic jams, smog, accidents, and road rage, but also, with the benefit of hindsight, more complex societal consequences such as insurance fraud or the decline of cities that relied on automobile manufacturing.

Science fiction

The other worlds of science fiction have much in common with the world’s fair pavilions – the key differentiating factor, however, is that the extrapolation vector is typically a negative force such as an out of control system, for example in James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), or a hubristic individual scientist such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819). In her book Representations of the Post/Human, Elaine L. Graham acknowledges Mary Shelley’s “evident knowledge and interest in the emergent discipline of natural science”, concluding that she intended Frankenstein to “explore the serious issues of natural philosophy in the context of the scientific debates of the time” (2002, p.66).

The origin of Shelley’s speculation can be found in the late 18th Century experiments of Luigi Galvani, whose experiments with frogs’ legs led him to conclude that electricity energy was intrinsic to biological life. Shelley, in building on a history of previous fictions such as the Jewish legend of the golem and several Greek mythologies such as Daedalus and Prometheus (as referenced in the subtitle), provided an updated version of the myth validated by the most up-to-date science of the day.

The allure of Shelley’s original novel comes in the pure crafting of the speculation – the initial description of the monster powerfully reveals its repugnance: “Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed upon him when unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” (Shelley, 1992, p.59)

Frankenstein (1931)

The key lesson to be learned from Shelley is how the speculation can be crafted to better embrace the complexity of the theme. She permits her monster to speak to the reader in the first person, providing it with an opportunity to elicit the reader’s empathy through distressing and moving depictions of its miserable existence. This acts to humanise the creature and in turn complicate the issue of its creation and the science behind it – the focus subtly shifts away from the pure uncanny horror of the creature itself towards the hubris of its maker and indeed, the role and function of science itself.

In a chapter entitled “Did Hollywood Make the Monster”, Graham describes how Dr Frankenstein’s creation was transformed in the popular Hollywood productions in the 20th century: “the ‘monster’ devolved to become silent or at best, inarticulate, a device which accentuates its brutishness … the ambivalence of the monstrosity dissipates, to be replaced by pure horror” (Ibid, p.66). Frankenstein shifted from a complex cautionary tale of gothic horror to a simple form of entertainment, a spectacle – “the primary virtue of which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it (the public) thinks but what it sees” (Barthes, 2009, p.3).

Many Speculative Design projects follow this path, seduced by the allure of a powerful provocation and the ease with which it can disseminate. It allows the speculation (B) to be the end goal via a gallery exhibition or media publication. Negative imaginaries, however, have been successful in influencing real-life events. In the 1990s the Frankenstein myth was well exploited by the right-wing press, particularly in the UK, in relation to genetically modified foods.

Cinematic futures

The power of cinema is that it has the capacity to immerse an audience in worlds that do not yet exist. Film can act as a provocation by projecting us into different possible futures, causing us to focus, and reflect upon, current concerns and their potential trajectories. These concerns can be personal, societal and cultural, causing us to question how our lives will unfold in years to come.

Initiatives such as the various Smart Cities projects (MIT’s Smart Cities1, IBM’s Smarter Cities2 and the ERDF’s SmartCities3) and also the Internet of Things4, demonstrate that one of the major challenges facing the scientific community is the rise of global urbanisation. Today, for the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities – the city has become an integral part of human existence. Technologists have responded to this shift with the promise of resources such as pervasive computing, emotional interfaces and sensor-rich environments. However, technologists must collaborate with broader society in order to integrate these technologies successfully into our public and private lives.

Since its early development film has reflected the trend of increasing urbanisation and scientific advancement. Cinema’s portrayal of the future city has been a source of inspiration for scientists, technologists and commentators. It is in the “cinematic city” where we find some of the most potent embodiments of our concerns about this emergent environment. Film allows an exploration of what it might mean to exist in a particular place and time. Indeed, Vidler5 has stated that film is “a sort of laboratory for the exploration of the built world … of architecture and the city”.

Whether it is the nightmare of the film noir cityscape or the distorted but prescient futurescapes of science fiction, cinema can create worlds.

Cinema has the capacity to compel an audience, to show worlds that are both exciting and unfamiliar. It can also reflect new aspects of the places that we think we know or, in extreme cases, take the familiar world and turn it upside down. It is through such techniques that cinema allows us to better understand our world and our place within it. Whether it is the nightmare of the film noir cityscape or the distorted but prescient futurescapes of science fiction, cinema can create worlds. But where does the cinematic world end and the real one begin?

The portrayal of the city in cinema has a profound influence on our perceptions of those cities and reciprocally it is in the cinematic city where we find some of the most potent on screen reflections of our environment. In a similar manner to Dunne’s Critical Design6 which characterises design as a provocation for thought, cinema can act as such a catalyst. Through such fictions, cinema has the capacity to humanise the future enabling researchers to focus on the minutiae of behaviour and the subsequent questions that are revealed through the exposure of our needs, desires, habits, rituals, values and priorities.

*A version of this section previously appeared in Smyth, M., Helgason, I., Mitrovic, I., Zaffiro, G. (2011). The City in Cinema: How Popular Culture Can Influence Research Agendas. FET 11. Budapest.

Commercial domestic fictions

Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book, published in the United States in the early 1960s, is more than a collection of recipes. Aimed at young housewives, this is an instruction book that explains exactly how to create a perfect domestic family life in the increasingly affluent America of the post-war era. This second edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book presents a vision of a domestic world that manages to be both practical and glamorous. The ring binder cover is brightly coloured with graphic, sugary blues, yellows and pinks, holding together a set of cardboard chapter dividers and pages. “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne”, the book instructs the homemaker. “Does wonders for your morale and your family’s, too!”

The reassuring world of Betty Crocker was hugely appealing and very successful. The first edition of the Picture Cook Book was published in 1950, with the new updated edition in 1961, and since then the various editions have sold more than 60 million copies. Betty herself, in spite of being a corporate invention, was highly respected, receiving 5,000 fan letters a day at the height of her popularity. As a fictional character created by the Minnesota-based General Mills company, a multinational marketer of branded consumer goods, Betty Crocker symbolised not just a return to domesticity after the disruption of the war, but also the promise of a heightened and intensified version of normality, a kind of aspirational super-normality. As a persona, however, Betty was not as prominent during the 1960s as she had been in previous decades. Her image, “competent-looking, dignified, neither-young-nor-old” (Marling, 2009), began to appear on the packages of convenience foods in the 1930s, but by the time the New Picture Cook Book was published she was becoming a background figure. As the swinging sixties were getting under way perhaps she seemed rather out of date. Instead of looking to a kindly aunt figure for advice, young women were responding instead to a richer vision of a whole lifestyle to emulate, complete with all the accoutrements of modern consumer life. Colourful tableware, dining room furniture, barbeque equipment, and even new cars make an appearance on the pages of the New Picture Cook Book.

The husband gleefully returning home is a frequent scenario depicted in the book.

In its design the book is a work of mid 20th Century art. In every section elegant line drawings reminiscent of the style of Cocteau or Picasso depict laughing people enjoying clam bakes, bridge luncheons and skating parties. Even as pen and ink sketches the characters look like movie stars or fashion models. Women are sleek in Grace Kelly dresses while their husbands are smart in Cary Grant city office suits, at least until the weekend when they can relax and take charge of the barbecue. The food itself is shown in full and sumptuous photographic colour, laid out in elaborate tableaux like the still life paintings of the Dutch masters.

Entertaining often features in the pages of the New Picture Cook Book.

This turn to the emphasis on the private, domestic arena was fuelled by the growing market in consumer products for the home. New domestic products, furniture and appliances were launched, combining space-age luxury with homely imagery of American rural life. Betty Crocker’s homemaker enjoys the benefit of technological modernity with her record players, refrigerators, and food mixers, but her home decor also reflects traditional values of the past, exemplified in the photographs of the Betty Crocker Early American Dining Room with its pewter accessories and antiques. The vignettes of comfortable, affluent suburban life are depicted throughout the book in Joseph Pearson’s illustrations. By contrast, the photographs of the test kitchens presented in the introductory pages of the New Picture Cook Book could easily be mistaken for science-fiction movie stills, with their blend of shiny laboratory surfaces and women in working costumes that could have been designed by Margaret Atwood. In fact, in Atwood’s speculative fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the Aunt characters, trainers of the handmaids, are named after “famous female figures of American consumer society”, both real and fictional, including Betty Crocker herself (Cooke, 2004, p114).

The Betty Crocker Test Kitchens

From the perspective of Speculative Design and Design Fiction it is interesting to look more closely at the aesthetic of the book. In Speculative Everything (2013) Dunne and Raby discuss the challenges of designing aesthetics of unreality. A successful speculative design captures both the real and the not-real, using the visual language of design to convey a seductive and ambiguous plausibility. Sketches and drawings play a role here. Discussing the drawings of a utopian land by architect Ettore Sottsass, Dunne and Raby suggest that their “cartoonlike quality invites us to view them as inspirational daydreams”. In the New Picture Cook Book, the many stylised line drawings depict the homemaker in her modern kitchen or fashionable dining room, presenting perfect edible concoctions to the delight of her loving family and admiring guests. For many young women in the early sixties these scenes must indeed have seemed very much like inspirational daydreams.

Experimental communities – EPCOT

Conceived in the 1960s, Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), was to be both a laboratory for future technology and a home for the citizens of tomorrow. This vision was explored in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. What is significant about the vision for EPCOT was that it took the familiar concept of attractions a step further and imagined them as elements of an integrated living environment. The vision for EPCOT was that families would live, work and play in a technologically rich environment.

The original 1967 E.P.C.O.T model at the Carousel of Progress, Disneyland, 1967 © The Walt Disney Company

In a 1966 promotional film, Walt Disney described this idealised relationship between the individual and the corporation, “when EPCOT has become a reality and we find the need for technology that don’t [sic] even exist today, it’s our hope that EPCOT will stimulate American industry to develop new solutions that will meet the needs of people expressed right here in this experimental community.” He went on to say that “it will never cease to be a living blueprint of the future where people actually live a life they can’t find anyplace else in the world.” In this revolutionary vision there would be no retirement and all citizens would be required to work for the maintenance of the city and would live in rented apartments and houses.

Irish and Asian areas for the International Shopping Center. 1966. Black & White version for press release. © The Walt Disney Company

EPCOT was to be the future, a vision of an American utopia institutionalised as a process of constant development and refinement. In a similar manner to the visions of the Italian Radical Designers, EPCOT would be upgradable and constantly evolving. For all the promise of EPCOT, the plans were halted after the death of Walt Disney, which occurred just two months after his promotional film. A more commercial version of Disney’s concept was created in the 1980s and was called the EPCOT Centre, it was part of a theme park and would have no residents. So EPCOT had moved from being a vision of a utopian community to being a theme park – from a place where the future was sought through a process of living, to a series of attractions through which new products could be observed. The vision of EPCOT had moved from a community to a laboratory firmly premised on a commercial prerogative.

A footnote to Walt Disney’s vision is the town of Celebration, Florida which was established in 1994. Celebration is a planned residential community that deliberately references the perceived qualities of post-war, middle America – it is a move away from the sprawl of suburban life and the associated social and civic isolation. While the city is very much in the Disney vision, it also provided up to date technology in all of the homes. It represents a manifestation of utopian thinking in a contemporary setting while all the time being grounded in the commercial reality.

Whether Celebration represents a dream or a nightmare is debatable, but it is undeniable that the desire to create new experimental communities is strong. This can also be witnessed in the development of communities that explore social housing and urban planning, for example Welwyn (Garden City), New Lanark and Milton Keynes (UK) and Brasilia (Brazil). More recently Masdar City (UAE) and New Songdo (S. Korea) have been built with the purpose of providing citizens with technologically rich environments, thereby enabling the long term study of their usage within the lived experience.

  1. http://cities.media.mit.edu/ 

  2. http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/uk/en/sustainable_cities/perspectives/index.html 

  3. http://www.smartcities.info/ 

  4. http://www.theinternetofthings.eu/ 

  5. Vidler, A. (1996) The Explosion of Space: Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary, in Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner, Dietrich Neumann (ed.), Munich, Prestel. 

  6. Dunne, A. (1999) Hertzian Tales – Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design, RCA/CRD Research Publications, Royal College of Art, London. 

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