Future #65: Where the game's made up and the points don't matter
From the philosophy of games to the memes of war, this week’s signals examine the limits of our imaginations when it comes to the future. So much of what is framed as innovation or disruption is just a reflection of the same fundamental forces exerting themselves. We take a look at how we might expand our view to conceive alternate paths forward. Stay tuned to the end for a delightfully complicated book-making process.
—Alexis & Matt
1: Am I winning? Does it matter?
Performance measurement of some kind is pervasive in most jobs and companies: how many deals you closed, how many clicks your story got, how many meetings you held, etc. These metrics are often meant to measure the overall health of a company, and as a result, the contributions of each individual to these common corporate goals. Establishing these measures means people know what’s important to their employer.
In the world of games, as J. Chi Nguyen argues, the points systems are there to tell the player what’s important. (It seems to work: in a recent conversation with a friend’s kid, he explained that he wasn’t interested in buying drugs in Grand Theft Auto because “you don’t get any points for it.”) From here, Nguyen extrapolates further: the point system alters the player’s agency. By saying some actions are more important or valuable than others, a player is being pressured toward certain decisions and away from others. Even more, that player is making these decisions under enormous constraint: you may walk in certain places, but not others; you may use certain weapons, but only against certain enemies; certain moves are legal but others are considered cheating.
When applied to our everyday lives, this concept of a point system and its constraints shows us the limitations of measurement and validation. What is lost by trying to optimize for the outcomes we can measure? What does it mean to “win” at these daily games, or are we always losing by just a little?
→ Are We Measuring Our Lives in All the Wrong Ways? | The Ezra Klein Podcast
2: Using comedy to plan for an absurd future
Speculation can be difficult. In any ideation session or brainstorming exercise, we all bring our own experiences and biases to bear when we try and imagine something new. There are spaces we allow ourselves to wander — What if money weren’t managed by a bank, but by code? or What if I could be connected to the whole world while climbing a remote cliff face? — and spaces we have a harder time entering — What if we eliminated money? or What if a meteor was headed for Earth, and we did nothing?
Chiara Di Leone argues that what’s missing in our understanding of our future, and what’s necessary to imagine more disparate futures, is good storytelling, particularly of the absurdist bent. Scenario planning began as a theater-inspired practice, borrowing the term “scenario” from commedia dell’arte. The intent was to have science and math partner with theater and comedy, creating a potential future vision that was not only intellectually satisfying but viscerally memorable. Since its inception, however, the practice of scenario planning has been corporatized and sanitized so that it no longer reaches past the brain to touch the soul.
Part of what we find most compelling (and fun, frankly) about this work is the ability to imagine something completely absurd, utterly impossible, then refine and hone that concept by taking it seriously. It’s only by imagining what seems impossible that we find that it may not only be possible, but deeply desirable.
→ Imagine Other Futures | Noēma Mag
3: Solving the wrong problems
Let’s imagine a future where you can have food from any restaurant delivered to you in minutes by a drone, where Momofuku noodles arrive at your sofa in Boise without a moment of friction. Now let’s also imagine what your local downtown looks like in this future. Instead of restaurants where people gather and work, the streets fill with warehouses and ghost kitchens; public space becomes merely storage for the materials that you need in your “real” life (which happens largely inside your home).
In this Eater piece, Jaya Saxena visits the Food on Demand conference in Las Vegas and is dismayed by the future of food that is being touted there. The visions of “disrupting the food delivery industry” on display prompt Saxena to ask, “Is the American dream never having to go outside?”. Every innovation imagined in this future stems from the kinds of narrow design processes we’ve heavily critiqued, ones where companies are designing solutions to solve a narrow user need without any consideration of a broader set of participants or potential knock-on effects. The food futures represented by ghost kitchens and delivery drones solve for one specific customer need: How do I get whatever I want with as little friction and cost as possible?
But what solutions would we develop if we considered other kinds of user needs, like vibrant community life, burgeoning small business ecosystems, or unique placemaking? And how might the problems with these narrow solutions become more obvious when you begin to consider the needs of participants beyond the customer (or end user), like restaurant owners, delivery workers, and community members? This is yet another example of how “innovation” has become constrained to conservative riffs on the current state, rather than imagining anything truly new.
4: Volts for vehicles and venti lattés
This week, Starbucks announced that it will be rolling out EV charging stations at Starbucks locations across the country, in partnership with Volvo and Chargepoint. Very soon, you might pull up to a Starbucks parking lot, stop in for a cup of coffee and some breakfast, and maybe work on your laptop for a bit while your car charges up.
Moves like this, combined with the expansion of EVs into more affordable models, have the potential to rapidly accelerate the adoption of electric cars in the US. But even beyond EV adoption, it’s fascinating to see how Starbucks has continued to expand their purpose and understand their users. Rather than keeping a narrow focus on serving coffee, they seem to be developing a deeper understanding of the role that a coffee shop plays in their customers’ lives. A coffee shop isn’t just a transaction, but a place for rest, work, and connection. With that context, they have thoughtfully augmented their spaces with complementary service and features, from work-from-anywhere spaces to vehicle charging. Welcome to the cafe / office / rest stop of the future.
→ Starbucks wants to become the gas station for the future of EVs | Fast Company
5: Platform wars (not that kind)
The latest issue of Real Life Mag takes a deeper look at some of the public reaction to war-related content on social media platforms like TikTok. Specifically, media commentators are often responding with shock to the juxtaposition of human suffering with catchy music and memes. But why should we expect something different? Why wouldn’t people use the same tools and contexts they use to express their experiences about everything else?
“While it might seem strange to see people make social media posts about war, particularly highly aestheticized ones that use meme formats, jokes, songs, filters, edits, and other aspects of the TikTok toolkit, wouldn’t it be stranger if they didn’t? To speak through images about what one is thinking or experiencing is an entirely ordinary way to react to what’s happening. It is not a distortion or exploitation of ‘what’s really happening’ but a routine part of it.”
The newsletter puts the situation in further perspective to call out that not only is this to be expected, but in fact it’s nothing new. Whether in newspapers or on television, the real-life horrors of war have always been displayed alongside advertising, comedy, cooking, and more. Our entertainment and commerce and news have long been intertwined, we’ve just become accustomed to older formats. The reaction to the current situation has more to do with the newness of the platforms being used (e.g. TikTok), who’s using them (people younger than the pundits), and a generational unfamiliarity with their aesthetic norms.
→ The current thing | Real Life Mag
6: Flirting with AI
If you close your eyes and think of a time when you were flirting with someone, what was it about your voice or theirs that thrilled you? The breaths, the laugh, the awkward stops and starts punctuated by fear and desire and hope? Could you imagine feeling that way from something generated by an AI?
A startup called Sonantic claims that they’ve made a breakthrough in AI-generated voices by adding in non-linguistic elements that can evoke flirtiness, teasing, cheerfulness, and other subtle emotions. In listening to the clips provided here, we can hear the underlying additions, but still find the quality of the experience deep in the uncanny valley. Leaving aside the believability of the generated voice, however, focusing on “flirty” or “teasing” generated female voices feels like an extension of the thinking that got us default female voice assistants. Hopefully companies like Sonantic will broaden their horizons a bit by challenging traditional roles and applying emotive techniques to a wide spectrum of voices and genders.
→ Listen to an AI voice actor try and flirt with you | The Verge
One complicated thing: ink, paper, and a 200,000-pound printer
If you, too, spend most of your day looking at various screens, this visual story in The New York Times is a lovely reminder of the messy beauty of physical production processes. It also has amazingly serene looping video clips to be mesmerized by.
→ How a Book is Made | The New York Times
Any opinions expressed are those of Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie, and do not reflect on the policies, plans, or beliefs of their employers or any other affiliates.