design politics

Messages to and from the future: mooncakes vs fortune cookies

As a strategic design consultant I spend a large amount of my time thinking about the future. My work ranges everywhere from anticipating how social services will need to be deployed to an ageing population, to identifying the kinds of supple skills non-profits need to foster right now in order to be future-ready. How are we going to be, as a society?

It’s always been this way with me: as a child, my bookshelf was full of wide-eyed educational extrapolations into the distant 21st Century, epic science fiction novels, and tomes about artificial intelligence. Good times!

My favourite book from 1978.

Indeed, I often look to the past when I think about the very idea of the future, not just so we can avoid repeating “the mistakes of history” (as important as that might be), but because as designers trying to make the world a better place, we really should honour the creative friction that happens when the weird fragments of the past we continue to live with rub against the potentials of the present moment. (For a future-oriented person, I do an amusing amount of hoarding! In my view, forgetting to deal with legacy systems, even if “dealing with them” involves actively destroying them, is tantamount to vapourware dreaming.)

So it’s not any one future as an end that I’m looking forward to, but rather a critical orientation towards futurity that we as a society will need in order to prosper alongside the other things with which we share this planet. You could say that it’s the most crucial line of inquiry of all: as a society, what’s the difference between what’s currently deemed important and what should be important? And how do we help bring the required change into being? Big questions. Political questions. Questions of vision.

What metaphors should we use as guides to navigate such questions? What’s our style of future thinking?

I write this on my birthday, which in 2017 also happens fall on the day of the Chinese Moon Festival. To mark this harvest festival, we Chinese traditionally eat mooncakes: delicious packages of lotus seed paste wrapped in crumbly pastry. And for me, mooncakes are a great way to think about our orientation to futurity, especially if you contrast them to their tackier cousin in the “Chinese food” universe: the fortune cookie. Fortune cookies are those crispy things that contain cheesy aphorisms about your future on a slip of paper. You crack open the cookie, and you read your fortune in a terrible suburban Chinese restaurant.

A mooncake of awesomeness

I’m sorry, but fortune cookies are bullshit. I’d argue that if you want to prepare for the future, a mooncake is much more useful model than a fortune cookie.

A bullshit fortune cookie.

Why is this so? Firstly, fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese, and are probably a relatively recent Japanese invention that only got retconned into Chinese cultural history during World War II. But more importantly, they’re kind of evil.

In this week’s episode of the excellent Star Trek Discovery, we were introduced to Captain Lorca, the first captain in the main cast of a Star Trek TV show that you could imagine committing war crimes. In his first scene, the secretive Lorca offers our protagonist a bowl of fortune cookies, telling her that his family was once in the fortune cookie business. Like his ancestors, Captain Lorca is still in the business of the future: the Federation is now waging a war against the Klingon Empire, and he wants to be one step ahead of his enemies, to the point of co-opting dangerous experimental research on interdimensional travel for military purposes. Essentially, he has his own Manhattan Project on the boil.

Captain Lorca fondles one of his fortune cookies.

It’s fitting that Lorca is obsessed with fortune cookies. His orientation to the future is all about sublimating his need for military supremacy into predictive certainty. The research he’s co-opted is fantastically creative, but Lorca has subordinated it to the logic of monarchs and generals: he seeks a shortcut to the future in order to stay one step ahead of the Klingons, and develops it in secret like an elite 23rd Century Bond villain. For Lorca, this is who the future belongs to. Indeed, he says (contrary to the need for ethical standards and in favour of the ends justifying the means) that “context is for kings”.

What is the creepy captain hiding in his lair?

What, then, of mooncakes? Fortune cookies are actually just a pale contemporary echo of the more powerful story of mooncakes, and the role they apparently played in the the Chinese overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th Century.

At that time, China had been occupied by Mongolian forces for a hundred years, and as they planned their revolution, Chinese insurgents used mooncakes as vehicles to collectively coordinate the uprising against their occupiers. Fortune cookies contain bullshit messages that purport to predict the future, whereas 14th Century mooncakes were designed to carry messages that were a collective call to action. Rather than turning to prediction in order to stay on top, the population worked together to create a future in which they were free.

Rebellion in Nanjing!

In some accounts, a slip of paper was hidden in each cake, stating the time of the uprising as a kind of open secret amongst the entire Chinese population: “Revolt on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month”. In other versions of the legend, this message was encrypted into the patterns on the top of the cake, and could be decrypted by slicing the cake into quarters and rearranging the pieces. So cool.

But regardless of exactly how the system worked, I find the contrast in disposition between fortune cookies and mooncakes useful in how we can think about the future.

When we think about the thorny problems that organisations and networks of people and other beings are going to face in the coming years, like coping with the now-inevitable consequences of climate change, or finding new systems to ensure food security, will we hanker after the hubris of kings, for whom the future is the secret to an endless reign, or can we instead see the future as an open secret, a common conspiracy of hope, that’s less about making grand predictions and more about coordinating our current creativity as an act of grassroots rebellion?

If you’re part of an organisation that wants to be future-ready, are you going to plot like a Bond villain or king who wants to live forever? Or are you going to work with your communities to co-design a surprising future?

On this birthday, I feel like a mooncake future. 😀

(Unfortunately, the mooncake emoji does not yet exist in the wild, and is scheduled for release in 2018.)

First published on Medium.

design politics

From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society

In his 1984 essay “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson wrote that

conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt — through the figuration of advanced technology — to think the impossible totality of the world system. [My emphasis.]

That is, our culture currently lacks the clarity to map the arcane workings of the global economy, but some of our tall stories still feature some wayward, fetishistic glimmers of that impulse. This figure of degradation reappears throughout Jameson’s work, always referring to an echo of a lost or unattainable whole: our critical sense of history, or an image of Utopia, etc.


Image: Wikipedia

Web designers have our own take on degradation. Graceful degradation is a way to deal with a world where different web browsers support web standards and sexy new technologies to uh, varying degrees <cough />. We design for the most complete experience, and build pages in a way that might preserve an echo of that experience in older or less capable browsers. In those dodgy browsers, the page gracefully degrades, and we exerience a still-worthwhile remnant of the lost whole — a bit like the way Jameson likes to see our radical impulses.

Meanwhile, a different design approach has emerged over the last few years, turning graceful degradation on its head: progressive enhancement is a way of designing outwards from the core content of the page. It keeps the design open to possibilities of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with a “whole” experience that must be compromised. While it might simply seem like another way to achieve graceful degradation’s exact goal from the opposite direction, this newer approach is qualitatively different: because progressive enhancement doesn’t presume a single, ideal state to fall back from, it deals much better with emerging landscapes and multiple contexts. For example, developing an integrated design that provides an equally “full” and contextually appropriate experience for both mobile and desktop browsers is easier with progressive enhancement.

So, if our degraded attempts at Utopia remind me of design’s graceful degradation, design should return the favour: what might progressive enhancement suggest in the world of culture and politics? As a designer who hungers for progressive political change, this question intrigues me. At the very least: rather than groping for a Lost Symbol of freedom, with plenty of us being left with a “graceful”, less-than-ideal experience as a fallback position from a fetishised Utopia, progressive enhancement suggests instead that a well designed experience of freedom can be built outwards from a core structure of meaning, in multiple ways, and in uneven terrain.

We should be careful not to reduce progressive enhancement in the real world to something politically unambitious, like simply “working within the system”; in web design, this would’ve been like sticking with table layouts and font tags in your markup “because that’s what we have”. That’s how ridiculous the idea of social democratic politics seems to me: you can’t redesign the world with spacer GIFs. Web designers wouldn’t enjoy our remarkably coherent landscape of enhancement options unless standardistas had advocated a clear break with the status quo, and so it is with redesigning society. (And yet this break wasn’t a spectacular event, but rather a massive sea-change that occurred over several years of bitter struggle.)

Meanwhile, you can find graceful degradation’s ambition — assuming a maximum specification, and then making do in less than ideal circumstances — in the experience of Stalinism, and that really wasn’t so graceful, was it? In the absence of a worldwide socialist revolution in the wake of World War I, Stalin’s defensive pragmatism of “socialism in one country” was clearly the wrong kind of pragmatism. (It’s no accident that orthodox Trotskyists, who utterly opposed Stalinism, still defended the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers’ state”, i.e. a degradation of a canonical design.)

On the web, progressive enhancement suggests a different kind of pragmatism — one that avoids both the conservatism of continuing to use the corrupt instutitions of embedded font tags, and the defensive contortions of trying to preserve a canonical design that was specified for only the most advanced browsers. By shrewdly taking different opportunities to enhance a core structure of freedom in different contexts, an ethic of progressive social enhancement could avoid both the increasing conservatism of social democracy on one hand, and the development of regimes that try and fail to defend a canonical idea of revolution that was only really aimed at the most industrially advanced countries.

Anyway, if you take anything from this, “you can’t redesign the world with spacer GIFs” is my favourite phrase from the above.