Zachary Kaiser
Everything Speculative (2018 – )
A collaboration between Nida Abdullah, Zach Kaiser, Scott Swarthout, and you.
(First exhibited at Science Gallery Lab Detroit, 2018)



Who decides which predictions are made real?

Maybe it should be: what determines which predictions become real? Indeed, today, people are read by machines, scanned by machines, predicted by machines. Is it so unlikely that the predictions about the future that actually become reality will come more and more from computers, rather than people?

Everything Speculative examines the intersection of two of the most important questions facing society today: (1) How do predictions about the future influence the very futures the claim to predict? And, (2) What are the consequences of a cultural privileging of computing?

At the core of the project is an attempt to underscore the politics of predicting the future and the way that privilege and inequity, what we pay attention to and what we don’t, can be replicated and amplified in the course of articulating possibility, which, itself ironically functions as the foreclosure of other possibilities left unexplored—lost futures past, past futures, hopes swept away under the current of Musk-ian techno-fervor or Black Mirror-esque dytopian horror.




Everything Speculative is a project composed of a network of devices, prompts, and spaces for visitors to respond to what they see and read.

Devices, playing the role of an “oracle” of sorts, display proclamations about the future made by a machine learning system trained on sets of headlines about the future drawn from popular technology sites (r/futurology, WIRED, the Verge, TechCrunch, etc.).

Meanwhile, the visitor is confronted with various contexts in which these proclamations could be interpreted (e.g., medicine, food, transportation).

The visitor is given the opportunity (and physical implements—paper, markers, etc.) to respond to these proclamations and contexts, triangulating and elaborating on the ambiguous and sometimes confusing statements made by the oracle devices.

We, the artists, also host workshops, in which participants engage in dialog about the politics of predicting the future, build scenarios in response to the proclamations displayed by the devices, and then discuss the kinds of societies in which such scenarios could happen and the technologies that would be required. What would these societies value? What kinds of ideas about people, institutions, and politics would undergird these societies and what kinds of people would live in them? The workshops are a practice of creatively responding to computational futurecasting through a multilayered process of interpretation and discourse. They represent a sort-of posture that we might take, an approach, maybe, towards human-readability in the face of an increasingly exclusively machine-readable future.

The responses of the visitors and participants in the workshops are folded back into the training set of data for the ML system, and the system is retrained. This happens at various intervals throughout the show. The oracle responds to our responses, turning on itself in a hermeneutic cycle.




THE POLITICS OF PREDICTING THE FUTURE

One space that the variations on the term “prediction” crop up with increasing frequency is in advanced computing, specifically the area known as “predictive analytics.” Indeed, we rely more and more on systems of inference and recommendation to help us make sense of the world and make decisions in days saturated with an overabundance of information. Such sense-making interventions range from the mundane world of Netflix recommendations to the high-stakes and highly problematic space of criminal justice, in which predictive policing and sentencing algorithms are used to allocate resources and mete out punishment. In both cases, we rely on computation to make some kind of prediction about an uncertain future for us. Other implementations of predictive analytics about: The University of Arizona is using predictive analytics to determine students who might need help or be in danger of dropping out. Demand for products is modeled and predicted, as is the timing of maintenance for particular technologies (such as airplane engines). This kind of thing happens all the time—computers predict the future and we barely even notice. The construction of models to aid in the managing of complex and uncertain futures is not necessarily new, but because of the amount of data being captured today, dynamic predictions and forecasts can happen constantly and can be used in real time. Massive data capture and storage, powerful computing, and increasingly common implementations of neural networks to make predictions about all sorts of physical and social phenomena, sometimes bypassing the notion of modeling completely, makes the rationales (and output) of contemporary machinic predictions difficult to understand if not completely illegible to humans. This speaks to the cultural power of computing to achieve a status as an oracle of sorts—reading signals imperceptible to humans and spitting out prognostications on the near (and far) future, some of which might seem illogical, absurd, or unintelligible to us. It is precisely this ambiguity of process and meaning that the oracle objects in Everything Speculative intend to elicit.

While predictive analytics has captured the cultural imaginary and conferred upon certain kinds of computing the status of an oracle, other entities, namely, people and corporations, serve equally powerful (if often equally invisible) soothsaying capabilities. Ideas about the future, when they achieve a certain cultural currency or hegemonic status, influence the very futures they claim to predict. Sometimes those who come up with these ideas might argue that they are innocently articulating the obvious extension of already extant tendencies, while others are actively trying to influence the future by taking on the task of predicting it. The latter category we might say is occupied by corporate futurism—ranging from Singuaritarians like Ray Kurzweil to less absurd but no less ambitious nor less totalizing projects such as patent applications consistently filed by platform monopolists for things they have yet to achieve the capacity to build; things like the patents filed by Amazon for their future warehouses that will float in the sky (or so they say). There are specific social and political conditions—though potentially different—under which both Kurzweil’s Singularity and Amazon’s floating warehouses would become reality. But by making their way into the cultural and legal fabric of society, they have sown the seeds for the very sociopolitical conditions under which they might be realized, and under which the ideologies driving their designs are privileged.

The other category of futurological discourse might be called “innocent forecasting,” or, maybe even more strangely, might consider itself a warning of sorts. Things like Dunne and Raby’s Speculative Design/Design Noir might fall under this category as might popular science fiction along the lines of Handmaid’s Tale and Black Mirror. Such futuring exerts an undeniable force, affecting the very trajectories on which they claim to speculate. They achieve a sort of hyperstition, in which fiction makes its way into reality, seeping through temporal cracks and finding a foothold. While a longer treatment of the idea of hyperstition is important (including an examination of its right-wing accelerationist roots), this loose definition will serve to underscore one of the key issues with Speculative Design.





“Speculative design is a practice of creating imaginative projections of alternate presents and possible futures using design representations and objects. At times critical and at other times whimsical, it is a distinctive, if loose, grouping of projects. Using the term broadly, speculative design covers a range of work across disciplines, fields, and historical and contemporary movements.” (DiSalvo, 2012, p.109).

Speculative Design (SD) “can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality” (Bratton, 2016). SD is futures-oriented. It takes products and services as the “main characters” of the stories it tells about the futures on which it speculates. In successful SD projects, these products and services make sense within the world in which the designer has situated them, thereby clearly embodying the values of the society in which they exist, and manifesting these values in a way that provokes a conversation amongst its audience about the desirability of a society holding those values. Successful SD projects make “enforceable” normative claims within a particular future and these normative claims shape what is possible within that future. As Dunne and Raby suggest, SD can be a catalyst for “social dreaming.” It is the production of an ethical design imaginary. This is the ideal of Speculative Design, but, as any ideal, it often fails to live up to its promise.

The best critiques of Speculative Design have emerged around its nature as a fundamentally Western enterprise, taken up as a legitimate area of study by prominent European designers and academics, its contours defined by socioeconomic privilege and a tunnel vision about the future that emerges from its classed, racialized, and geopolitical roots. These roots ooze out of the often hyper-modernist stylized objects created by Dunne and Raby and their acolytes. Indeed, the objects in Everything Speculative intentionally resist such over-aestheticization, instead taking up an ad-hoc approach to making the future, using salvaged materials and repurposed objects as a way of privileging a different idea about what kinds of people might be best suited to build the future and what that future might look like.  

There is a less frequently cited critique of SD that I first heard from Ahmed Ansari and Jabe Bloom, about the relationship between Speculative Design and time. Indeed, like Google Home commercials or episodes of Black Mirror, Speculative Design, influences the very futures on which it speculates. While attempting to “provoke discourse” in the gallery space about the possible futures we might encounter, SD nudges, if ever so slightly, the trajectories which they merely sought to make us (predominantly white, upper-middle class, academic gallery goers) discuss. In other words, utterances about the future are not mere utterances but rather perturbations to the directions those futures are headed (though some perturbations of course are larger than others).

So it seems, from our brief survey here, that the task of predicting the future has been left largely to: (1) computers and predictive analytics; (2) corporations and those with access to the legal, cultural, and financial capital to exert significant influence on various social and cultural imaginaries; and, (3) western, predominantly white academic artists, designers, and theorists, who mostly come from places of socioeconomic privilege and lean on the rarified gallery space as their preferred venue for disseminating their ideas.

This leaves the rest of us in a pretty tough spot. While there has been a surge in interest in Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism, and other historically marginalized futures-oriented discourses, the hegemonic dominance exerted by computing, the corporations in control of that computing power, and people and institutions who benefit from the continued marginalization of those already at the margins continues to assert its influence on the future, in turn, shaping the present.



Everything Speculative is, then, in one sense, dystopian, in that it suggests the continued advancement of corporate predictive analytics towards a kind of apex of its status as a genuine oracle. At the same time, however, the project’s whimsy and potential for subversion lies in this very suggestion. Our machinic soothsayers must still—despite their predictive power—base their predictions on our actions; they must respond to us, much as we respond to the ways in which they shape our world. It is in this (maybe currently uneven) reciprocity that the potential for a new dynamic might be found, new modes of articulating the future, through a kind of hermeneutic dance, an interpretive back-and-forth with something we might not be able to control but which we might be able to creatively misread and/or mislead.