Multi-disciplinary artist Deborah Mason outlines her collaboration with researchers, engaging people in counter-factual imagination. What if one historic event had been otherwise, giving us an alternative present to ours? What would be the possibilities in our altered ‘Now’?
1,140 words: estimated reading time 5 minutes
When Ann Light, professor of design at the University of Sussex, asked me to make her a Counter-Factual World Generator – an analogue Counter-Factual World Generator – I was immediately enthused and excited. I’d been watching The Man in the High Castle on TV and was also aware of other fictional counter-factual works (such as The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon) and my head immediately started buzzing with ideas. The generator would be used in a workshop that formed part of the University of Sussex and Wired Sussex ‘Philip K Dick season’. Ann had a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve from the workshop. It was intended to address the theme of Ways of Being in a Digital Age, taking as inspiration a quote from Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle:
“On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives.” – Philip K Dick
How might innovation work differently if we thought about narratives of development that were made unfamiliar through counter-factuality? Ann’s introduction ran like this:
“Philip K Dick once said that, in good science fiction, the idea depicted sets ‘off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind’ unlocking the reader to create worlds alongside the author. Dick’s work (which includes the stories behind the Bladerunner and Total Recall films) often portrayed fantastical technologies, setting them in a 20th century future or counterfactual present, but the reason his ideas still haunt us is that he dwelt on the societal consequences of the technical developments he envisaged … We will use the Counter-Factual Worlds Generator to provide the stimulus for new perspectives and avenues of enquiry, asking what publics are, were and could be through a series of exercises that take us back to old worlds and forward to ones that we hope for or dread.” – Professor Ann Light
A fairground sideshow
During our initial conversations, I sketched out some ideas – inspired by the character of Childan, who sells Americana artefacts to the Japanese. I created the Counter-Factual World Generator to look like a fairground sideshow (with slight Americana styling). At the turn of a bird-shaped lever, it would roll out papier mache ‘worlds’. Inside each world were art-silk squares, each with a different counter-factual world represented. They also contained a scroll of paper with a little more detail on the counter-factual context and some ‘speculations’ to help discussions along.
The counter-factual contexts we chose were:
- Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII’s children all survive to adulthood – no need for a divorce, no break from Rome;
- the Brazillian rubber monopoly holds – rubber is a luxury;
- the Russian Revolution fails — no communist bloc in Eastern Europe;
- the San Andreas fault causes an earthquake that wipes out silicon valley (and Hollywood) at a critical moment;
- and finally the classic – the Nazis win World War II.
Only the ‘rubber world’ was designed specifically to trigger thoughts about the environment and how we might think differently about resources. But everyone was given a little set of knobs labelled ‘Cultural’, ‘Economic’, ‘Social’ and ‘Environmental’ as ways of thinking about the impact of any innovations.
As I worked on each context, creating the silk squares and the scrolls, I had my own ideas how these might affect the world we live in now, and what we might or might not design for it. The results from the workshop were far more interesting!
Where possibilities become more possible
Through a process of Worlding, Chronicling, Creating and Analyzing, participants used the idea of a world different to our own in one major historical detail to explore values and choices. When each group presented their worlds and their ideas at the end of the workshop, it was interesting to see that the idea of being present in that world – rather than speculating on a future one — created first-person narratives or presentations that were in the ‘now’ rather than in imagined futures. The idea of embedding oneself in a speculative present made ideas more real, more visceral, both less dystopian and less utopian. The possibilities became more possible. It also freed the proposed innovations from the constraints of current innovations and current trends, so it was not just a rehash or iteration of existing design ideas, trends or apps. This freedom also allowed for exploration of inventions, trends, and ideas that we might want to guard ourselves against rather than exploit, but in a way that still gave space for future exploration of possible positive applications (for example DNA modification; or the use of digital to create ‘wonder’).
Some of the ideas coming out of the exercise might have environmental or climate change implications and it occurred to me that this exercise of imagining a different present (and how we might operate in that different present) was as valid as, and possibly more powerful than, asking people to imagine alternative futures. The future is a place we never reach and cannot inhabit. The present is where we always are. A different future is optimistic and helps to promote long-term planning, but a different present highlights the actions we can take now, ourselves, to make the changes we imagine and the world we would like to be.
The Counter-Factual World Generator now lives at the University of Sussex, but other similar machines could be made, or other versions of this exercise trialled as a way of thinking about climate change and different presents leading to different futures. Ann and I are always interested in exploring the possible.
Find out more
The University of Sussex Creative Technology Research Group is concerned with the interfaces between humans and digital technology and how these are changing, and investigates interaction in the broadest sense, in relation to digital technologies, connected physical artefacts, and people’s experience and practices with mobile, immersive, ubiquitous and pervasive computing. You can see a selection of Professor Ann Light’s publications at her University of Sussex page.
There is an interesting New Statesman review by John Gray of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (although if you are reading the novel or watching the TV series, needless to say: ‘Spoiler alerts”).
Counter-factual questions: Space for creative thinking? "What historical event would you change, and what specific ways do you imagine this altering the present world that we know? Would the alternative 'Now' be unambiguously better, or might it bring new complications?" Share your thoughts and speculations in the Comments below or use the Contact Form.