Even money, the almighty
bottom line, the ultimate reality
check for American society, has
tripped over its own infrastruc-tural blinders, and lost its ability
to map value. The visionaries no
longer know what to think—and,
by no coincidence, the financiers
can no longer place their bets.
I scarcely know what to do
about this. As Charles Eames
said, design is a method of action.
Literature is a method of meaning and feeling. Hearteningly, I do
know how I feel about this situation. I even have some inkling of
what it means.
Rather than thinking outside
the box—which was almost
always a money box, quite
frankly—we surely need a better
understanding of boxes. Maybe
some new, more general, creative
project could map the limits of
the imaginable within the contemporary technosocial milieu.
Plug that imagination gap.
That effort has no 20th-century
description. I rather doubt that it’s
ever been tried. It seems to me
like a good response to events.
The winds of the Net are full of
straws. Who will make the bricks?
user observation, brainstorming,
rapid prototyping, critical design,
speculative design. There is even
“experience design,” which is
surely the most imperial, most
gaseous, most spectral form of
design yet invented.
Experience design is closer in
spirit to theater, poetry or even
philosophy than it is to the older
assembly line. What on earth
isn’t “experience”? And what is
not, in some sense, “interactive”?
Experience designers are a tiny
group of people with a radically
When science fiction was
born from its radio-parts catalogs, design was also born as
the streamlined handmaiden of
industry. The earliest industrial
designers, Norman Bel Geddes in
particular, were much given to
flamboyant sci-fi special-effects
gestures: flying wings, giant
dams, and future supercities.
But these two sister disciplines, born within the same
decade and surely for similar
reasons, soon parted ways. The
sisters were distantly cordial; but
they saw no common purpose.
Design, which is industrial, has
clients and consumers, while
science fiction, an art form, has
patrons and an audience.
No major designer ever
dabbled in writing science fiction. Gaudy sci-fi never went in
for stern modernist rationalism,
the glum acceptance of material constraints, or the study
of human ergonomics. These
two visionary enterprises never
shared a user base.
Until, that is, the Internet.
When print began to dissolve,
the industrial began to digitize.
The consumers and the audience
became the users, the keyboard-
clicking participants, the people
formerly known as the audience.
Here in 2009, I find myself
wondering hard about those older
commonalities from the 1920s.
The technoculture that we currently inhabit (it’s not the post-modern anymore, so we might
haltingly call it a cyberneticized,
globalized, liberal capitalism in
financial collapse) well, it was
neither rationally designed nor
Why is that? What happened?
Why are we like this now? What
next, for heaven’s sake? Can’t we
We have entered an unimagined culture. In this world of
search engines and cross-links, of
keywords and networks, the solid
smokestacks of yesterday’s disciplines have blown out. Instead
of being armored in technique,
or sheltered within subculture,
design and science fiction have
become like two silk balloons,
two frail, polymorphic pockets
of hot air, floating in a generally
tainted cultural atmosphere.
These two inherently forward-looking schools of thought and
action do seem blinkered somehow—not unimaginative, but
unable to imagine effectively. A
bigger picture, the new century’s
grander narrative, its synthesis, is eluding them. Could it be
because they were both born
with blind spots, with unexamined assumptions hardwired in
80 years ago?
There is much thoughtful talk
of innovation, of transformation, of the collaborative and
the transdisciplinary. These
are buzzwords, language that
does not last. What we are really
experiencing now is a massive
cybernetic hemorrhage in ways
of knowing the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Sterling, author, jour-
nalist, editor, and critic,
was born in 1954. Best
known for his nine science
fiction novels, he also
writes a weblog. During 2005 he was the
“Visionary in Residence” at the Art Center
College of Design in Pasadena. In 2008 he
was the guest curator for the Share Festival
of Digital Art and Culture in Torino, Italy,
and the Visionary in Residence at the
Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.He has
appeared in Time, Newsweek, The Wall
Street Journal, The New York Times,
Fortune, Nature, I.D., Metropolis,
Technology Review, Der Spiegel, La
Repubblica, and many other venues.
© 2009 ACM 1072-5220/09/0500 $5.00