What's Next for Imagination: Technology, Fiction and Brand Experimentation (Part 1)

Creativity in service of advancing the human condition is under assault from emerging technologies and their power to solve problems. We can create more wealth with fewer human resources. Businesses are consumed with growth through automation, mechanization and optimization. Machines can imitate creativity through hyper-fast trial and error. Innovation is a ruse that fuels the market's refusal to slow down and consider the consequences of our decision-making. We no longer have time for the novelty of invention or exploring the depths of the unconventional. Imagination and creativity are deemed valuable only when operating at the speed of computation. The metabolism of free markets is beyond our control and has no time for the limits of humanity.

The beauty of creativity resides in the fact that humans make mistakes; it's the source of our creative and entrepreneurial successes. We must preserve the fallibility and idle tendencies of the human mind because it's through our limitations that we discover novel possibilities. 

The lines between reality and fiction are blurring

In his science fiction novel Accelerando, Charles Stross paints a grim picture of where we're headed if we let the biases of technological innovations shape our reality at the expense of our humanity. He writes, "Somewhere out there we will find the transcendent intelligences, the ones that survived their own economic engines of redistribution—engines that redistribute entropy if their economic efficiency outstrips their imaginative power, their ability to invent new wealth."

In Stross's fictional tale about humanity as it heads toward a technological singularity, he describes a universe filled with intelligences that share an ability to shape economies through all-consuming, competitive logics similar to capitalism. Business models eat other business models, reducing the intelligent beings that encounter them to basic commodities; all forms of value diminish over time as the technologies of economic growth evolve. Ever hear of FANG stocks?

Finding the everyday relevance of this concept is not difficult when you consider the variety of socioeconomic exchanges that take place in our globalized economy and how human resources are marginalized through automation and exploitative agendas. Science fiction (albeit a poorly named genre) offers many cautionary tales about the dimensions of techno-society that businesses conveniently ignore. But much of science fiction increasingly feels more like documentary (see: Black Mirror). 

The blurry line between fiction and real life in the sci-fi genre is worth acknowledging because it clarifies where we stand in shaping our current reality, meaning businesses and brands are, in a sense, fictions brought to life in the search for new value. That also means that more is on the line socially and economically, so we need to make space and time for the mistakes of the human imagination to flourish through iterative and risky creative projects.

Reality is a fiction of our own making

The world we take for granted is being aggressively designed for us, by us. Try to think of something in your everyday experience that hasn't been planned, manufactured or implemented by human beings. When you wait in a long line, hunt for a deal while grocery shopping, stare at your phone as your kids laugh and play next to you, or take the bus to work, you're experiencing a world designed and implemented by humans. 

And of course, it's not all bad. We can carry the entire catalog of human knowledge in our back pockets. We can fly through the air at 400 miles an hour. We can walk to our freezer and grab a pint of delicious ice cream. We can even prolong our lives with sophisticated medical treatments. In the land of "first-world problems," this is what it means to live a "real life." Reality is essentially a fiction of our own making, full of possibilities, tragedy and wonder. We control our future, and we could do a lot better. 

Let's try a thought experiment to explore this idea. First, think of all the "innovation" and "technology" buzzwords you've heard over the last few years. Now, randomly string them together into a sentence. Here's mine:

Biometric drones with blockchain-enabled protocol layers enabled with empathetic AI crowdfunding models access meta-business models for cryptographic verification of localized micro-transactions that allow 3-D printed organs to move across on-demand distribution networks for personalized automations of privacy policies.

Now let me ask you this: Did any of that, for one second, make sense? If you answered yes, you have experienced what it feels like to be an entrepreneur and/or creative (or both) in today's world—maybe even the feeling of being the average consumer. 

The fictional world created by Stross was a warning against the seduction of technology and its ability to corrupt our sensibilities. Many of today's challenges can be reduced to a failure of imagination and lack of courage to embrace risk and experimentation. If we fail to take the time (or be given the time) to explore the possibilities for any given moment or experience, we're doomed to let the computers rule. Imagination needs room to roam.

[To be continued]

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Jason Severs
Jason Severs is chief design officer at Droga5