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The High-Tech Crap You Might Find at the Corner Store of Tomorrow

When we picture the future, typically, we see the shiny, gravity-defying objects we wanted as kids -- hover boards, jet packs, and floating touch screens. The Near Future Laboratory, a creative collective based in California and Switzerland, likes to turns these expectations upside down (and inside out). Their latest project, Corner Convenience is a thought experiment, newspaper [pdf], and series of three short films that explore the trivial and mundane objects coming soon to a store near you. These items are fictional but just barely -- lotto tickets that win Twitter followers and porn magazines that you watch through virtual reality glasses. It's a subtly subversive way to suggest we reexamine what we want and expect from technology.

"If you were stuck in an apocalyptic shell of a world," Julian Bleecker, the director of the project, asks, "would you rather have an iPad 3 or a BiC lighter?" Questions like this pop up a lot in the world of design fiction, a growing field that imagines the future of technology through prototyping and storytelling. The goal, the Near Future Laboratory explains, is "to swerve the present into new, more habitable near future worlds."

Bleecker created Corner Convenience with Nick Foster and students at a workshop at Arizona State University's Emerge event. He discusses design fiction, the near future, and panda jerky in an interview below.

The Atlantic: For the uninitiated, what is the Near Future Laboratory? Why focus on the near future as a timeframe for innovation? 

Julian Bleecker: The Laboratory is a design and technology collective. We design and make tangible things and speculative things, always trying to be a bit provocative — to show how things could be in the near future. We try to show different near futures from conventional, mainstream ideas of what the future will be like and look like. We work for ourselves and our own curiosities and also for normal, human clients. The near future is just around the corner — one year, three or maybe five years. It's a territory that allows the work we do to feel imminent and entirely possible. We like that time zone because it's interesting to the world of product and service makers for the same reason and our future is always full of disruptive and likely quite different things from what their usual design consultants are telling them.

Science fiction and futurism are not new, but is it fair to say that "design fiction" has emerged relatively recently as a distinct concept? Is it particularly relevant today, in a world that's supersaturated with technology? 

Well, I think it's distinct at least insofar as what design, science, technology, fact and fiction mean today. The ways of thinking about the future always change and each cultural and historical moment is distinct. Using fiction today as a design tool is quite distinct from what it may have been at some other point in time.

What is distinct about this particular moment from others is the sense of imminence of things — the sense I feel that many things are possible and unexpected, weird things *do happen. There is barely a gap between boring, mundane facts, unexpectedly bizarre, OMG moments, and fantastic, suspicious, possible real fictions. What is impossible always seems to happen, even if it's a genuine visage of Jesus showing up in a grilled cheese sandwich and sold on eBay.

In my mind, it's relevant today because playing in the space between fact and fiction is at the heart of the networked world's media culture. It's a fertile, fuzzy, fun terrain useful for creative thinking about new possible near futures of unexpected products, services, daily experiences. It's a powerful way to do design when you want something truly disruptive rather than the same thing as last year, only in a different color. Fiction provides a safe space for design to make objects and props and the experiences people or robots have around those things. It's safer in the sense that you can think about and design the otherwise untenable because it's all made up anyway. No one's going to blame you for being imaginative and using design and fiction to encourage weird new experiences. And then you have a rationale for fooling the guys in blue shirts and yellow ties with the checkbooks who are almost always from Marketing. You enroll them in the fantastic possibilities enough that they *want it, even if, at the beginning of the meeting, they thought they wanted last year's thing only now with a bigger screen, or that same thing Apple makes, only cheaper, smaller and in party colors.

What was the inspiration for the project, and for these three videos in particular?

My friend Rhys Newman had the idea to do a sort of historical look at the fantastic and boring objects you find in a Corner Convenience. His hypothesis is that all great human innovations end up at the counter of the convenience store — fire, birth control, power, light, etc. It's a provocative hypothesis. We weren't concerned to know if this was verifiable — it's just a prompt to think about the trajectory of things in a different way. Rather than being excited about things at the Apple Store, for example — what about the things we take for granted but are nevertheless the vital bedrock of our contemporary convenience lifestyles? The things that cost three for $1? Look — if you were stuck in an apocalyptic shell of a world, would you rather have an iPad 3? Or a BiC lighter? It's just a studied approach to desirability. For the films, we wanted to move that same hypothesis into a near future Corner Convenience store using some evocative props and simple setups.

The three little films centered around a number of design fiction props. They are evocative props, meant to activate the imagination rather than specify technology or make claims about what will or will not happen in the near future. This is a key attribute of design fiction — it's meant to start conversations. The props were the bits of design fiction that were meant to suggest little stories about what the larger world outside the Convenience Store is like.

It was all done very quickly. We spent a short bit of time developing concepts and discussing the shoot with about 11 participants in a workshop. There were four little films initially, but time was a factor and we had to be out of the location after three hours. We deliberately focused on curious, un-flashy things. We really wanted that mundane, taken-for-granted character of the convenience store. And we wanted it to be weird props, because those places can get pretty weird. So you have a world where there's synthetic Panda Jerky — or maybe it's not synthetic, who knows? It may be that genetic science has saved the Pandas a little too much and now they've bred like nuts and exist in the overcrowded suburbs of Beijing like giant aggressive rabbits and are running around as wild, feral carnivores eating house pets and rifling through garbage bins and have to be culled during government--authorized two-week urban hunting seasons. Who's to say? But, in this world — there are now vacuum-sealed packs of Panda Jerky and Snow Leopard Jerky and it’s as banal and as exciting as a four pack of Energizer AA batteries. And augmented reality glasses? Which everyone in Silicon Valley is all hopped up about? Sure, okay. But it's going to be for watching porn more than anything. No question about it.

How does narrative web video contribute to the storytelling element of design fiction?

Like most things in the networked age, the circulation of ideas is key and perhaps that’s one of the things that makes design fiction so much more compelling than it may have been before the network. 

In your post about the project, you make an interesting observation about how video editing and animation tools can actually limit how we imagine and render future technologies. Where do you see this happening, and is there any way to avoid it?

It's an observation that certain animation and composition tools predetermine the kinds of design fiction films that can be made. So now that you can do green screen effects at home, and motion tracking at home, and use compositing tools to make any surfaces look like they're giant touch screen computers — you end up with a world where every surface is an interactive computer. That's sort of boring. It's a design fiction world that, unfortunately, is determined more by the filmmaking tools rather than a designer's imagination.

What's next for you?

*shrug. More little design fiction films. Making more prototypes of things that are improbable but possible. I'd especially like to make one that explores new ways of listening. Audio is an aspect of fictional futures that's vastly underrepresented. Lots of screens in the future, but no thoughtful, designed, crafted audio experiences. Seems a shame. The conceit would be to imagine a future fictional world in which our earballs were as greedy as our eyeballs are now. What's the earball's screen?

For more work by the Near Future Laboratory, visit http://nearfuturelaboratory.com/.

Thanks to Noah Feehan for suggesting the video.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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