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Dreaming Together: Experiential Futures as a Platform for Public Imagination



Made Up: Design's Fictions is a collection of essays, interviews and narratives exploring design fiction, a broad category of practice that overlaps with experiential futures, science fiction, worldbuilding, and speculative & critical design. The book features contributions by Julian Bleecker, Anne Burdick, Geoff Manaugh, China Miéville, Fiona Raby, Bruce Sterling, and others. The piece 'Dreaming Together' was written in 2013.
Mimi Zeiger
Tim Durfee
Design’s Fictions
Tim Durfee
Mimi Zeiger
Benjamin Critton Art Dept.
Anne Burdick,
MDP Chair
Braulio Agnese
Kyra Lunenfeld
Jessica Lee
American Foothill
Brian Roettinger
978 –1– 5323 – 4788–7
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Congress, Washington, DC, USA.
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Imprint Made Up
Design’s Fictions
ArtCenter College of Design /
Media Design Practices
© ArtCenter Graduate Press
Actar Publishers
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Possible Essays on the Made Up
January 29, 2011
On Julian Bleecker
Architecture’s Real Fictions
January 29, 2011
The Endless Rediscovery of America
Contributor Biographies104
94 – 101
81 – 93
67 – 80
59 – 66
57 – 58
49 – 54
44 – 48
41 – 42
38 – 40
34 – 37
28 – 33
18 – 26
10 – 15
6 – 9
4 – 5 Anne Burdick
Mimi Zeiger
Tim Durfee
Bruce Sterling
Julian Bleecker
Emmet Byrne +
Susannah Schouweiler
Benjamin H. Bratton +
Sam Jacob
Fiona Raby
Benjamin H. Bratton
Stuart Candy
Geoff Manaugh +
China Miéville
Geoff Manaugh
Peter Lunenfeld
Norman M. Klein
Tom Marble
Keith Mitnick
Experiential Futures
as a Platform
for Public Imagination2
In my first year of university, I
remember reading Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad. One passage in
particular leapt out at me:
It is impossible to convey the
life sensation of any given
epoch of any one’s existence
that which makes its truth, its
meaning, its subtle and pene-
trating essence. It is impossible.
We live, as we dream
Something in my 18-year-old
mind resonated with this expression
of fundamental existential loneliness,
which I suspect everyone feels to
a degree as they come of age. But
these words haunted me for years,
and I’m not entirely sure why. It may
be that I was grappling with this
paradox: Are we truly condemned to
live and dream alone? All of us?
Much more recently, I read a
novel by Arthur C. Clarke, Child-
hood’s End; a sweeping tale about
humanity being guided to the next
phase of its evolution by a myste-
rious yet seemingly benign alien
civilization.4 The book has stood up
well for over 50 years, although of
course there’s nothing so charac-
teristic of an age’s thinking as its sci-
ence fiction. Clarke is most famous
for co-writing with director Stanley
Kubrick the epic 1968 film 2001:
A Space Odyssey, and of all sci-fi
writers, he strikes me as remarkable
for the way his imagination burned
to achieve escape velocity from the
culture of his era
not to mention
his species; to dream a way out into
truly different times and places, and
take us there.
It was reflecting on Clarke’s
feats of imagination that got me to
wondering about the odd fact that
our brains are not temporally bound.
There’s no physical limitation pre-
venting us from cognizing wildly dif-
ferent and yet fully coherent life-set-
tings in detail. Anatomically, human
brains across the planet, and over
tens of thousands of years, haven’t
really varied much. Yet the variety
of worlds
landscapes, cultures,
languages, values, technosocial
that the human brain has
managed to host, to create, and to
navigate has been enormous. The
very fact that each of us today car-
ries in mind a model of our personal
context and surroundings at this
historical moment, a world in many
ways unimaginable to our ances-
tors, underlines that in principle
we’re capable of imagining equally
disparate possible worlds of the
even if we generally don’t.
It’s what our minds are surrounded
and scaffolded with that makes all
the difference.5
“Unimaginable” is not absolute.
It’s situational. The reason that this
matters, I suggest, is that it points
to a missing piece in our modern
technoculture: I think we have a
chronically impoverished practice
of public imagination. Yes, there’s
Arthur C. Clarke, and Godzilla,
and Star Trek, and many other
speculative entertainments before
and since; but for “serious” pur-
governance, politics, and
the “real” worlds we shape using
those processes
we simply have
not developed a habit of imagining
and sharing the long-range sce-
narios at issue in any concrete way.
Meanwhile, the massive failure to
understand our power as a species
and to exercise it with anything
approaching strategic foresight, let
alone wisdom, is producing epically
hairy environmental, economic,
and other consequences that are
increasingly plain to see.
This is not a new line of thought.
Noting the curious imbalance that
we have countless thousands of his-
tory specialists and yet pay scarcely
any serious attention to the rest of
time, it has now been more than 80
years since the stupendously influ-
ential author H.G. Wells (The War of
the Worlds, The Time Machine, The
Invisible Man) called for Professors
of Foresight.6 Some inroads have
been made on that front since;
indeed, the entire scholarly field of
futures studies, also known as fore-
sight, speaks to the need highlighted
by Wells in 1932.7
Nigh on half a century has
passed since Alvin Toffler observed,
in the classic article that led to his
1970 bestseller, Future Shock, that
1 See Contributors, p. 104
2 This paper is based on a
presentation at the “Recon-
stitutional Convention,” which
inaugurated the Governance
Futures Lab at the Institute
for the Future in Palo Alto,
California, April 26, 2013. The
ideas were further developed
through a keynote at the
TippingPoint Australia forum
“The Future
Unthinkable or
Unimaginable” in Canberra,
May 29, 2013. Thanks to the
organizers of both events.
3 Joseph Conrad, 2007
[1899], Heart of Darkness,
Penguin Classics, London,
p. 33.
4 Arthur C. Clarke, 2010
[1954], Childhood’s End, Pan
Macmillan, London.
5 It was thanks to years of
conversation and collaboration
with Dr. Jake Dunagan, now
at the Institute for the Future
and of California College of the
Arts, that this way of thinking
about futures as scaffolding
for the brain became integral
to my own view. See, for ex-
ample, Jake Dunagan, 2010,
“Politics for the Neurocentric
Age,” Journal of Futures
Studies, 15(2): 51 – 70, p. 56.
6 “It seems an odd thing
to me that though we have
thousands and thousands of
professors and hundreds of
thousands of students of his-
tory working upon the records
of the past, there is not a sin-
gle person anywhere who
makes a whole-time job of es-
timating the future conse-
quences of new inventions
and new devices. There is not
a single Professor of Foresight
in the world. But why shouldn’t
there be? All these new things,
these new inventions and new
powers, come crowding along;
every one is fraught with con-
sequences, and yet it is only
after something has hit us
hard that we set about deal-
ing with it.” H.G. Wells, 1932,
Professors of Fore-
sight!”, BBC, 19 November. In:
Richard Slaughter (ed.), 1989,
Studying the Future, Austra-
lian Bicentennial Authority /
Commission For the Future,
Melbourne, pp. 3 – 4.
7 The list of academic
foresight programs at the
Acceleration Studies
Foundation website is a useful
resource (though difficult to
keep up to date). accelerating.
we have no “heritage of the future. 8
This observation goes right to my
point about the need for an overall
cultural capacity, toward which an
academic field has proven to be only
a partial solution: our inherent and
permanent lack of a future “heri-
tage” means we have to work hard to
create one. And although certainly
a challenge, the creation of tangible
compensations for our lopsided tem-
poral inheritance can certainly be
done, as the emerging practitioners
of experiential futures and design
fiction are now learning.9
It seems to me that the stakes
and eventual possibilities for these
hybrid forms of design are far
greater than one might suspect from
watching highly produced videos on
the thrilling future of glassware, or
prototypes of nifty gestural computer
For when it comes to the
process of public choice
way humanity supposedly shapes
its destiny in our ostensibly most
“developed” communities
congratulate ourselves on the
accomplishment of democracy and
fret endlessly over its procedures;
the whos and hows of voting; the
rituals of deliberation (the weighing
of alternatives) and decision (the
killing of alternatives when we make
a choice).11 But regardless of who
votes, what is the real meaning of
any such choices if the alternatives
among which we are selecting are
underimagined, clichéd
or simply
Whatever their personal short-
comings, I locate the problem not
with political candidates but in the
scandalously uninspired fodder used
to generate public conversation. So
where might we look for a solution?
My friend Natalie Jeremijenko, an
engineer and artist, has described
her work as being about the creation
of “structures of participation, 12
a phrase I use often because to
me it captures what good futures
work does, too. Foresight practice
involves creating structures of par-
ticipation for co-imagining. Likewise,
the task of governance is bound up
with the design and use of struc-
tures of participation for collectively
shaping the common good. To my
mind, those appear in quite diverse
forms and at different scales, rang-
ing from the design of a meeting
or conference, to the design of a
legal system like the United
States of America, and also to the
design of a political and experiential
futures intervention like the one I’m
about to describe.
With foresight and design col-
leagues, I have been doing experien-
tial futures since 2006, and its roots
and influences go back much fur-
ther.13 Of all interventions that I know
of in this vein, the most exciting to
date is one I heard about shortly
after it occurred during the Arab
Spring. It is a significant illustration
of the faculty of public imagination.14
In January 2011, Tunisia ousted
President Zine El Abidine Ben
Ali, ending a 23-year dictatorship.
Immediately, the economy started
the revolutionaries hadn’t
known they would succeed, and
didn’t have detailed plans for next
steps. With a backdrop of economic
suspension and a political vacuum,
what followed might have been
as bad as what had gone before.
What did in fact happen was rather
A month after the revolution,
for one day in February 2011, sev-
eral newspapers and television and
radio stations across the country
reported as if it were June 16, 2014;
three years and four months into the
future. They reported stories from
within a hypothetical future in which
Tunisia enjoyed newfound stability,
democracy, and prosperity.
Social media activity swarmed
around the #16juin2014 hashtag
(and for the first time led the national
conversation to trend at number one
on French Twitter), and critically, the
mood and situation began to change
as people imagined and debated the
destiny of their country. The inter-
vention also helped spread the call
for Tunisians to get back to work, a
key step toward recovery in the wake
of the upheaval.
This remarkable story should
prompt many questions, but the one
we’re most interested in here is: How
might a sustained commitment to
structures of participation for public
imagination work in other contexts,
at scale?
For instance, what if standard
political brand-oriented advertis-
ing expenditures were curbed, and
candidates instead had to produce
feature documentaries not about,
but from the future that their policies
Most places have a library or
museum dedicated to preserving
their past; how about a public build-
ing dedicated to immersing visitors
in an ever-evolving array of experi-
ences of what the community could
become one generation from today?
Or why couldn’t we set aside a public
holiday each year, a day dedicated to
staging a Festival of Possible Worlds
in the streets, parks, and piazzas of
great cities around the globe?
Let us return to where we
began. It is true that at some level,
our personal experience can be only
ours. But I no longer fear that we are
condemned to dream alone.
8 “Society has many built-in
time spanners that help to link
the present generation with
the past. Our sense of the
past is developed by contact
with the older generation, by
our knowledge of history, by
the accumulated heritage
of art, music, literature, and
science passed down to us
through the years. It is en-
hanced by immediate contact
with the objects that surround
us, each of which has a point
of origin in the past, each
of which provides us with a
trace of identification with the
past. No such time spanners
enhance our sense of the
future. We have no objects, no
friends, no relatives, no works
of art, no music or literature,
that originate in the future. We
have, as it were, no heritage of
the future.” Alvin Toffler, 1965,
“The future as a way of life.”
In: Glen Gaviglio and David
E. Raye (eds.), 1971, Society
As It Is: A Reader. Macmillan,
New York, pp. 450 – 461,
quotation p. 458. [Originally
published in Horizon 7
(3): 108– 115.] This same
passage appears verbatim
in the book: Alvin Toffler,
1970, Future Shock. Random
House, New York, p. 423.
9 See Stuart Candy, 2010,
The Futures of Everyday
Life: Politics and the Design
of Experiential Scenarios.
Unpublished doctoral disser-
tation, Department of Political
Science, University of Hawaii
at Manoa.
10 For a critical view of
corporate design fiction,
see Noah Raford, 2012, “On
Glass & Mud: A Critique
of (Bad) Corporate Design
Fiction,” February 2. news.
11 On the etymology of these
terms, see William Isaacs,
1999, Dialogue: The Art Of
Thinking Together, Doubleday,
New York, pp. 37, 45.
12 New York University
Steinhardt School of Culture,
Education and Human
Development website.
13 Candy 2010, op. cit.
14 For more details and
sources for this story see
Stuart Candy 2012, “An
experiential scenario for post-
revolution Tunisia,” The
Sceptical Futuryst, April 2.
An Interview with
China Miéville
I think that humanity is funda-
mentally psychedelic
quite liter-
ally: mind-manifesting15
and that
the history we collectively choose
to live out in years and decades to
come will depend on how well we
cultivate public imagination, through
experiential futures, large-scale
participatory simulations, transme-
dia games, and the like.
I believe we can dream together,
now. And I suspect that to the extent
we rise to the challenge of good gov-
ernance for the 21st century, that’s
exactly what we will be doing on a
regular basis.
15 A most elegant statement
of this insight comes from the
late psychonaut-philosopher
Terence McKenna: “[T]ech-
nology is the real skin of our
species. Humanity, correctly
seen in the context of the
last five hundred years, is an
extruder of technological ma-
terial. We take in matter that
has a low degree of organiza-
tion; we put it through mental
filters, and we extrude jewelry,
gospels, space shuttles. This
is what we do. We are like
coral animals embedded in a
technological reef of extruded
psychic objects.” Terence
McKenna, 1991, The Archaic
Revival, HarperCollins, New
York, p. 93.
Novelist China Miéville is widely known, and justifiably celebrated,
for his poetic and otherworldly descriptions of urban environments.
From floating cities lashed together with ship’s hulls to mobile set-
tlements traveling the desert by rail, Miéville’s works are filled with
architectural and urban imagery that show design fiction at its most
exciting and conceptually extreme.
It is all the more interesting to note, however, that one of
Miéville’s most evocative fictional worlds
the divided city of his
2009 novel, The City & The City
attains its conceptual and crit-
ical richness precisely by avoiding the standard tropes of a sci-fi
metropolis. Rather, disguised as a run-of-the-mill detective story,
The City & The City pushes an outlandish and Byzantine spatial sce-
nario to the point where speculative political science becomes polit-
ical science fiction.
In the following interview, excerpted from a discussion originally
published on BLDGBLOG, Miéville discusses the narrative potential
of spatial critique.
What was your initial attraction
to the idea of a divided city?
I first thought of the divided city
as a development from an earlier idea
I had for a fantasy story. That idea
was more to do with different groups
of people who live side by side but,
because they are different species,
relate to the physical environment
very, very differently, having different
kinds of homes and so on. It was
essentially an exaggeration of the
way humans and rats live in London,
or something similar. But, quite
quickly, that shifted, and I began to
think about making it simply human.
For a long time, I couldn’t
get the narrative. I had the setting
reasonably clear in my head and
then, once I got that, a lot of things
followed. For example, I knew that
I didn’t want to make it narrowly,
allegorically reductive, in any kind
of lumpen way. I didn’t want to make
one city heavy-handedly Eastern
and one Western, or one capitalist
and one communist, or any kind
Julian Bleecker
Benjamin H. Bratton
Anne Burdick
Emmet Byrne
Stuart Candy
Tim Durfee
Sam Jacob
Norman M. Klein
Peter Lunenfeld
Geoff Manaugh
Tom Marble
China Miéville
Keith Mitnick
Fiona Raby
Bruce Sterling
Mimi Zeiger
978 –1– 5323– 4788 –7
ArtCenter Graduate Press
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