Speculative and Anticipatory Orientations Towards the Future

This is part 3 in a 3 part series of posts based on work I presented at Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) this year on analyzing concept videos. Read part 1, part 2, or find out more about the project on the project page or download the full paper

After doing a close reading and analyzing the concept videos for Google Glass (a pair of glasses with a heads up display) and Microsoft HoloLens (a pair of augmented reality goggles), we also looked at media reaction to these videos and these products’ announcements.

After both concept videos were released, media authors used the videos as a starting point to further imagine the future world with Glass and HoloLens, and the implications of living in those worlds. Yet they portrayed the future in two different ways: some discussed the future by critiquing the world depicted in the companies’ concept videos, while others accepted the depicted worlds. We distinguish between these two orientations, terming them speculative and anticipatory.

Some of the authors challenged the future narratives presented by companies which we term speculative orientations, inspired by speculative design (as discussed by Dunne & Raby and Gaver & Martin). These challenge corporate narratives and often present or explore alternative future visions. Speculative orientations may suggest an opportunity to change, refine, or consider other designs.

One example of this orientation is Kashmir Hill’s discussion of a possible future much different than Google’s concept video:

It’s easy to imagine lots of other situations in which it’d be attractive to be able to snap photos all of the time, whether with friends, on the subway, on a road trip, walking down the street, at the beach, at clubs, at bars, on an airplane […] We could all become surveillance cameras, but with legs and Instagram filters

Another example is Lore Sjoberg’s imaginings of different types of “smart” devices that might supplant Glass, such as smart hats or smart walking sticks, in some ways critiquing the perceived silliness of having computerized glasses.

One example was the creation of a Google Glass parody concept video by Tom Scott, showing other ways Glass might be used in the world – recording things in inopportune times, showing users literal popup ads, and people bumping into unseen physical objects.

Written critiques, alternate subversive scenarios, and parodies provided reflections on what social experience and intimacy might mean with Glass, questioned Google’s motives, and explored how new social norms enabled by Glass may raise privacy concerns.

Alternatively, other authors largely accepted the corporate narratives of the future as true and imagined the world within those parameters, which we term anticipatory orientations (influenced by work on anticipation in Science & Technology Studies and Steinhardt & Jackson’s concept of “anticipation work”). These orientations foresee a singular future, and work to build, maintain, and move toward a particular vision of the future. Anticipatory orientations are more likely as a technology moves closer to its public release. Anticipatory orientations may suggest greater acceptance of a new product but less space for changing a product’s design.  For instance, with less space for critique or reconsideration of the design, some people began taking other types of concrete steps to prepare for the arrival of the anticipated future, such as bars and other private establishments that pre-emptively banned Glass due to privacy concerns, or the Stop the Cyborgs campaign.

Another example of the anticipatory orientation is Jessi Hempel’s description of the future with HoloLens, which followed the parameters of the future world presented in the HoloLens concept video.

you used to compute on a screen, entering commands on a keyboard. Cyberspace was somewhere else. […] In the very near future, you’ll compute in the physical world. […] What will this look like? Well, holograms.

Similarly, Patrick Moorhead imagines the use of HoloLens in line with the way it is portrayed  in the video.

I like that the headset is only designed to be worn for a few hours a day for a very specific purpose […] That is one reason why I am considering the HoloLens as a productivity device first and entertainment second

These anticipatory orientations imagine the future, but take the videos’ depicted future at face value.

These two orientations are not mutually exclusive, but rather lay on a spectrum. However, distinguishing between them allows us to be more precise about ways people discuss and imagine the future.

These raise interesting questions to look at in the future. What might it mean to design or present an artifact to evoke an anticipatory or speculative orientation? Is that something even worth doing? What might it mean for a Kickstarter video to encourage one orientation over another? What might it mean to have one orientation over another with regards to a technology that violates rights like privacy or free speech? As new technologies are created and distributed, it is worth asking how people imagine how those technologies will be used in daily life.

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