By Nicolas Nova, co-founder of Near Future Laboratory, and Antoine Fenoglio, designer and co-founder of Les Sismo.
Presentism: a difficult relationship with the future
In this talk, Nicolas Nova looks at the relationships between design and the ways in which it is able to portray different imaginary worlds. To do so, he starts from the subjects’ ability to project themselves into the future, using the concept of “presentism” developed by Hartog in Regimes of Historicity. Presentism is characterised by a difficulty in projecting oneself into the future, as well as by an overvaluation of past achievements, resulting in a feeling of being trapped in the present. For Nova, presentism is accompanied by a failure of the collective imaginary on the idea of the future, apprehended through the prism of progress. He quotes Jankélévitch, who speaks of a “mirage of the future past”: one imagines the future as part of a linear continuity in relation to the past. Yet, Nova notes, the last 50 years have given us reason to believe that this teleological historical perspective of progress is inadequate – notably with the invention of the atomic bomb and the emergence of major ecological crises. Scientific developments pose ethical problems, which our temporal imaginaries have difficulty in representing adequately: how can we break free of this temporal confinement?
Fiction as a medium for temporal projection
Nova cites an article by Stephenson, entitled “Innovation Starvation,” published in Wired magazine. This science fiction writer argues that the challenge is to stimulate engineers’ imagination and desire for innovation through storytelling. But, while it seems necessary to nurture the imaginary relating to technical innovation, the article does not sufficiently question the grandiloquence of the imaginaries of space exploration and technology. In order to address the social and ecological issues at the source of the decline of the ideology of progress, Nova suggests that technology must be joined with the humanities: he quotes Penser l’anthropocène (Imagining the Anthropocene), in which Descola points out the challenge of subjective representations of time and being in order to document alternative ways of “composing worlds”. Nova argues that, even more than words, the applied arts are a way of engaging with the issues. Speculative design, in particular, entails questioning situations in order to shed light on alternative future approaches: the object, with a pedagogical aim, embodies the issues at hand, allowing for a practical understanding of them.
Issues: beyond subversion
If fictional imaginaries make it possible to nurture the collective temporal imaginary and address emerging issues, the narrative as a temporal projection nevertheless tends to conceive of the future as dystopian. Prado, a designer, also denounces a tendency to recount so-called “fictional” issues, which have in fact already taken place in contexts far removed from the designers in question – no longer locked in a present time frame but in their immediate spatiality. Nova also cites Raven to reflect on more objective or normative “modalities of intervention”. Simply identifying problems is not enough: solutions must also be found. He closes his session by quoting Tsing, who, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, insists on the importance of one’s ability to pay attention in order to devise solutions without overpowering the diversity of situations. He also quotes Halse, who, in Ethnographies of the possible, envisions design as a form of ethnography of the possible. The object, a diegetic prototype, thus brings together three capacities: observation, visual and physical expression, and the anticipation of future needs, all of which are responses to the key challenges of a design of care that aims to make the world more habitable.