United Micro Kingdoms 09.08.13

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England, The Future: a Balkanised utopian laboratory. The country has split into four "super-shires", each of which is developing in its own social and technological direction, pursuing its own vision of heaven. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby's United Micro Kingdoms at the Design Museum is a glimpse into these exotic new polities, and the result is an odd little exercise in "design fiction" that packs an extraordinary amount of intellectual fibre into a small space.

Each of the four statelets is glimpsed via its primary mode of transportation, a neat – brilliant, even – way of summarising a whole way of life in a single design object. The Digitarians, for instance, zip about in cute little "digicars" on a terrain flattened into a continuous data-rich, machine-readable surface. Digitarian society has abandoned democracy and privacy for a high-functioning, highly marketised and networked world where, as long as all the gadgets work OK, no one cares that power rests in the subroutines of invisible technocrats who might be nothing more than sentient algorithms. The restless flow of the digicars, ruthlessly optimised according to a complex tariff structure, resembles data in a network. It's fanciful but also very familiar in a "real" world of containerised freight, automated stocktrading and post-democratic managerialism.

The honey that helps Dunne & Raby's speculative medicine go down is their skill as designers – each of the micro-kingdoms' conveyances is rendered with charm, not least the pastel-hued Jetsonian digicars. Clean and nippy, they couldn't be more different to the Bioliberals' vat-grown-skin "biocars" – environmentally benign but slow, bulky, messy and smelly, ideal for a bleeding-heart Bag-For-Life paradise.

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Less convincing are the Anarcho-Evolutionists, who have eschewed most high technology in favour of tampering with their own DNA. A humanity in which your social role is decided by the composition of your genes is only disputably anarchic or libertarian. And while their human genome-meddling tends towards specialisation, with thunderthigh super-cyclists and willowy balloonists, they are undoing specialisation in the animal kingdom, turning back hundreds of generations of work. The "hox" combining the speed of a horse with the strength of an ox and the "pitsky" (pitbull-husky) will bite the legs off burglars when it's not running the Iditarod. You have to wonder why, although it's hardly out of character for us to treat animals according to very different standards than those we apply to ourselves. However provocation is the purpose of the exercise. A well-wrought piece of design fiction should raise if-then-but questions like a shotgun blast raises birds from a field, and the speculative sky above United Micro Kingdoms is busy indeed.

For my money, it's the Communo-Nuclearists all the way: kilometres-long nuke-powered trains trundling through natural splendour, enjoying permanent leisure and energy-abundance. As a societal model it may have its flaws – the threat of meltdown and a one-in, one-out population policy – but as a Hornby model the C-N supertrain, sculpted to resemble a succession of hills and valleys, is a delight.

Alongside these cultures-in-a-bottle are useful displays explaining the merit of developing design fictions, and the role computer-generated imagery and modelmaking can play. But the value of design fiction at its best should be clear from the four scenarios themselves: a capsule view of the possibilities and pitfalls of four technological avenues, and without handwringing or empty rhetorical questions. It's a gem of an exhibition, worth half an hour of anyone's future.

 

Image

Luke Hayes

 

Words

Will Wiles

quotes story

The result is an odd little exercise in "design fiction" that packs an extraordinary amount of intellectual fibre into a small space

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