Consider how beautiful the world would be if all the technical genius that goes into mobile phones was devoted purely to the pleasure and usefulness that they might give to the user. It doesn’t, of course. Ingenuity is also employed on such things as enticing consumers, as we should more accurately be called, into spending more on tariffs and extras than we want to, and on creating that magical combination of satisfaction and discontent that ensures we keep on buying new products. They work just as well and no better than the manufacturers can get away with.
While designers love to imagine the perfect product, in a universe untroubled by the interactions of markets and people, the truth is that anything designed, made and sold is shaped by the power play between them. In the micro-kingdom of the Digitarians, a state in an unspecified future dependent on digital technology and market forces, of which you could imagine Mark Zuckerberg being president for life, this truth still applies.
Here, cars have become driverless buggies, their movements efficiently co-ordinated by computers, allowing their occupants leisure to reflect and operate screens. They have become more like phones, in that what you pay for is less the physical object than the services that come with it. According to an opaque system of prices, you can buy different levels of privacy, size and performance. The cars come in childish pastel colours, showing the same infantilising tendencies as the graphics of Google, Apple and Facebook, and, as with those companies, they sugar the fact that you are not offered as much freedom as first appears. What might be a paradise of frictionless movement across an open landscape becomes a zone of status envy, marketing and congestion that is not unfamiliar.
This imaginary state is a not wholly unrealistic projection of current technologies – driverless cars are being developed now, along with the idea that the important thing will be the software that manages them rather than the hardware of the vehicle. The purpose of inventing the kingdom of the Digitarians, however, is not to provide a precise prediction of the future, but to offer physical suggestions of what might happen and to show that the causes and effects of technology and design are political, social and economic.
This place is one of four United Micro Kingdoms in a fictional future England invented for the purposes of an exhibition at the Design Museum by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. A designer and an architect, respectively, by training, they devote their energies to teaching at the Royal College of Art, and creating speculations about the interaction of design with fantasies and beliefs. Rather than ask: “What is good design?” they ask: “For whom might this design be good?”
The other three kingdoms include that of the Communo-Nuclearists who, possessing unlimited but risky nuclear power, spend their lives on vast communal trains, each powered by a small reactor, which cruise slowly through untouched nature. The Anarcho-Evolutionists use science to modify themselves so that they make better use of the environment, creating, for example, a race of cyclists with extra strong thighs. Bioliberals are mostly farmers, cooks and gardeners, using biotechnology to grow not only plants but also organic machines.
Each is depicted in the exhibition by means of transport particular to their way of life, represented with engaging models: the digital cars, the giant train, a genetically engineered mutant that is half horse, half ox, a vehicle grown from a potion of yeast and tea. All are weird but not technically inconceivable. The aim is to show how politics and culture are contained within what might look like a simple practical proposition, the design of things to move us around.
The models are presented with sparing quantities of supporting material, the idea being that, like archaeological exhibits in the British Museum, they evoke a society by themselves. There are a few images of the cars and trains in imaginative future landscapes and some baffling photographs of the models in apparently present-day settings. There are also written explanations – the show is text-heavy and it’s not helped by redundant blurbs, insisted on by the museum, about the ways in which designers use models and computers. Their aim seems to be to tick some box called “education and access”, but in a show that depends on economy of means they are brainless.
More successful is a mini-library in which you can sit and browse a selection of books on imaginary worlds and visions of the future. They allow you to feast a little more after the esoteric sushi that is the rest of the exhibits. The main purpose of the show is to provoke further thought and the books suggest ways of pursuing this.
United Micro Kingdoms: A Design Fiction is on the slight side, but it has a critical intelligence and a wit that nicely illuminate the Design Museum’s other displays, where furniture, signage, fashion and digitalia are shown in a more innocent fashion. The strength of Dunne and Raby’s futurism is that they show neither heaven nor hell, but something messy and contested, and which casts light on the present.
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