Creative breakthroughs don’t just happen. Brilliant artistic leaps don’t fall out of the sky, or out of the minds of “geniuses”: they come in the wake of new technology.
Give humans an opportunity to work with something at a slight deviation to its intended use, and boy, will they grasp it with both hands. And the invention of a single piece of tech can create unintended outcomes.
For instance: children’s favourite squishable, fluff-collecting play-stuff, Play-Doh, was initially marketed as a wallpaper cleaning product. It was only when kids - the purest creative minds of all - started globbing handfuls of it together that a pivot to playfulness took place.
Meanwhile, in adult-world, one small box, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, had a profound effect on pop culture. Designed to make backing tracks for semi-professional musicians to jam too, emerging hip-hop heads got their hands on it, tweaked the sounds, and made it the backbone of the sound of the first ten years of hip-hop. Oh, and Kanye named an album after it.
The constraints imposed by tech creates new windows of innovation: something as innocuous as twitter’s 140-character limit actually forced millions of people to communicate in new ways: more succinct, more inventive, with more emojis, with more gifs, more like @dril.
It's also why Twitter’s recent proposed bump to a 280 character limit was received with plenty of derision:
It's a simple enough progression: new stuff begets new stuff. But what about when it becomes a feedback loop - where the art influences the technology? What about when creativity works the other way?
Remember: everything is a remix now.
Thus, the division between creators and technologists has shrunk to a cigarette-paper’s width. Which is why now, technologists are thieving ideas from the creatives, just as the creatives once stole from them.
Novels have spawned plenty of “real” versions of imagined technology. Even something as deliberately quirky as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seems to have a lot in common with today: Google Translate is essentially the Babel Fish, and the Guide itself is essentially a smartphone and a link to Wikpedia.
One TV show in particular gave pop culture a glut of tasty ideas to bring to life: Star Trek's Replicators are advanced 3D printers, the Holodeck is essentially an Augmented Reality device, and even the Teleporter kind-of exists now (but is only really useful if you are a single photon interested in travelling 88 miles)
But there are two big recent touchstones in pop culture that have very directly spurred designers, technologists, and #makers to point our future in the direction same direction as fiction. And they’re both from a place where the job title “Imagineer” is whoilly legitimised: Hollywood.
Run to the future
The two movies whose names appear again and again when designers talk about inspiration are Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and, latterly, Spike Jonzes’ Her.
For many of us, 2002's Minority Report was a crackling sci-fi tale featuring one of Tom Cruise’s greatest exhibitions of grim-faced on-screen sprinting.
For others, the movie presented them with a blueprint for our today. Minority Report’s multi-touchscreen devices, gesture control, eye tracking, e-paper and even the core crime-prediction technology all exist in 2017, and if you own a mobile phone or an e-reader you’re probably used all but the latter (the US military isn’t so keen to share that one.)
More recently, Her proved to be more than an adorable story of a sentient operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who allows Theodore Twombly - a wet lettuce of a human - to fall in love with “her” before ditching him at the altar of humanity.
For UX/UI geeks, it was an opportunity to go gooey-eyed over the serene screens that subtly puncture humanity’s otherwise apparently tech-free world in the near future - and to get busy making it real.
Here’s how one Spotify designer effused over Her’s vision:
“Tomorrow’s devices should be unobtrusive… something so “you” that it dissolves into your life. The movie ‘Her’ is a great example of that…. Design should be more analogue, more natural feeling.”
This sounds great - and you can already see (or not see) the shift in tech away from type-’n’-click interfaces to the more ethereal ones offered by Amazon’s Alexa et al.
One point of concern: Her is not a movie about awesome UX, natty OS design, or smart AI. It’s about the singularity, and humans being superseded by machines.
All those designers who rushed to make better typefaces after watching Her might actually have been hastening our demise. And you thought that typeface aficionados were insufferable already.
DNA under NDA
To summarise: tech has eaten pop culture which has eaten tech which has eaten pop culture which has eaten tech all over again. And this pattern will keep happening, ever closer in sync.
So which movie might the next wave of tech change be inspired by? Worryingly, it could be a movie that suggests a future where designers have designs on… you.
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film Gattaca depicts a world where eugenics is the norm: where children are not only designed before birth, but also have predisposed diseases, mental illnesses, and even baldness genetically patched out of existence.
The movie wonders: what does it mean if you are an imperfect person living in a world of genetically perfect specimens? In 2017, when the “designer baby” is feasible, the citizens of the USA are asking themselves a similar question - because their bad genes might suddenly cost them a lot of money that they might not have.
If the Trump-led repeal of the Affordable Care Act passes, insurance companies will be able to charge people who get big, bad illnesses - the ones who cost them most money - more. And that extends to people who have a genetic predisposition to illness - even if it hasn’t manifested yet and you are not “ill”.
Because it’s 2017, and everything is awful, there is worse to come. Bill HR 1313 could allow potential employers to have access to your genetic records - and if they don’t fancy the burden of an employer who might get heart disease in 15 years, they can choose not to hire you.
Surely, this is all a coincidence. For the dystopian eugenic future of Gattica to have been an inspiration for US lawmakers, they’d have to be deeply unkind, troubled individuals who’d put the love of money before goodness, empathy and care for their fellow humans. So it couldn’t be that.
But don’t bet your future on it.