There is something fascinating about looking at the past’s vision for the future. We’ve all seen the images of what people in 1900 envision for the year 2000. Perhaps it’s because there are pockets of the future within the confines of that era’s technological milieu. There begins a surreal relationship between the promise of the future and the weight of history.
Take the example of the battle car. The automobile was new and ready to change the world, so some people busied themselves with thinking about its other applications. This prediction came true, of course, and evolved into the modern-day war tank. Autonomous cars are undergoing a similar process, with Ikea imagining alternative uses for the interior.
But how do these ideas come to be? One way is through patents.
Patents offer a glimpse into visions for the future.
These visions are sometimes complementary, often competing. And whoever wins often points history toward a certain direction. Consider the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell is often credited with its invention, but some people believe it was really the Italian inventor Antonio Meucci. The debate all comes down to a patent technicality.
The Patent Library, The Institute of Patent Infringement’s art installation at London’s V&A Museum explores the strange and uncanny future being imagined by big tech firms right now. The Institute sifted through thousands of publicly-accessible patents filed by Amazon and invited the audience to browse and critique this “legally-sanctioned” future by providing opportunities to hack, alter, and repurpose these patents for ulterior aims.
I had the chance to see this exhibit when I was in London. Being Amazon’s patents, they mostly consisted of ways to improve warehouse and delivery efficiency using new technologies like AI, robots, and wearable tech.
Some patents were cool, like a patent to detect counterfeit, stolen, and gray market goods. Others were pretty innovative, like a patent for an inflatable data centre. And even more were kind of frightening, like a patent for a wearable technology to track worker’s hands. That last one just screams panopticon and Big Brother.
That’s where the other aspect of the exhibition became interesting. People took the Amazon patents and reimagined them for other uses. Some ideas focused on posthuman cities, civic spaces, and dating.
Most of the ideas, like the patents themselves, were pretty wonky.
But that was the point. This exhibit was meant for us to critically evaluate possible futures. Are we comfortable with big tech firms creating futures without our input. Smart cities, no less? Are we expected to thank them for it? Are we even well-equipped to know what kind of futures we want if we wanted to provide input?
I think the exhibition showed the importance of collaboration when envisioning futures. But with different perspectives, histories, and expectations, how can society agree on a preferable future?
This question got me thinking of author David Eagleman. He’s a neuroscientist that speaks about overcoming those limitations I was mentioning earlier. Companies need to find the middle ground between new ideas that are too close to what they’ve done before, which will bore the audience, and ideas that are too wild, which won’t gain many followers. Fashion designers and car manufacturers do this all the time with haute couture and concept cars, respectively. These ideas hardly become mass produced or mainstream, but they feel out the border of the possible.
The same can be said for Amazon’s patents. While some of these ideas might come to be, I doubt many will be implemented. But they tell us how far we are willing to go to accept new ideas. It’s not a push, it’s a nudge. And enough nudges will make the future exponentially different from the present. But we’re left with the question of how many nudges are we willing to accept before we realize we’re not getting the future we want. Below are some pictures of the exhibition. Let us know if you’re willing to accept these futures.
Graduate of the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program, OCAD University, Toronto, Canada.