David A. Kirby’s POV
This interview is part of the collection called FuturED, that explores the relationship between education and futures study. We created a form to interview educators, academics, designers, and anyone who works in the field of design fiction, speculative design, critical design and so on.
The result is a mix of different visions, tools, methods, to teach how to think at the futures.
Dr. Kirby received his PhD in Molecular Evolutionary Genetics and he worked for several years as an Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Biology. In 2001 he decided to leave bench science to explore the relationship between science, media, and the public. He now teaches courses on science communication, science fiction, and the history of science at the University of Manchester.
As Near Future Designers it’s not unusual for us to have difficulty to explain our job, because there isn’t yet a common perception of why and how the exploration of possible futures would be a profession.
For this we would like to issue a challenge to you today:
Can you explain to us what you do as you would explain it to your parents?
I’m an academic who studies the ways in which scientists, engineers and designers utilize fiction – fiction films, television shows, computer games and other types of fictional media – to instill desires in audiences, to see future technologies become actual technologies in real life. So I explore the role that fiction plays in crafting our visions of the future and how various individuals or groups try to use fictional media to influence or shape those futures.
Today Future is a hot topic. Why, in your opinion? How do you relate to future? Why do people talk about future instead of futures, plural?
Certainly the future is a hot topic today, but the future has been a hot topic for a long time.
One of my favorite quotes about the future actually comes from Ed Wood’s 1959 film Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s widely considered one of the worst films ever made, but it opens with some narration from the famous TV futurist The Amazing Criswell who says:
“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
It sounds really ridiculous because it has this ambition to sound profound, to be a big pronouncement.
But if you think about it, you can actually see what he is really try to get at: we care about the future because we will be living in that future. What happens in the future is going to impact our lives, so we should do what we can to have a positive impact on this future. And I think it’s also the case of why we think about the future rather than futures. Because as humans we are constantly thinking in selfish terms. The future is “my future” not necessarily the future that anyone else will be living in. So I think that just because of the nature of the ways in which humans think, we think about a solitary notion of “the future” rather all the potential futures that could be out there.
Future is a complex matter, involving culture, technology, psychology, anthropology, complex dynamics and a whole lot of other things.
What does it mean to study and research the future and, connecting with the previous question, what does it mean to “teach” how to study and research the future? How do you do it?
Studying the future, teaching the future, it’s a very complex process, and it involves a lot of academic disciplines. My background is in a scientific field (my phd is in Molecular Evolutionary Genetics), and then I made the transition into studying and thinking about notions of communication, especially, science communication. When I made that transition I transitioned into a field called science technologies studies, a field that deals with sociology, anthropologies, literature, design, architecture, a whole of different disciplines. Because of that background I think I’ve been well placed to combine many different disciplines. This transition got me thinking about notions of the future and how we could design the future, so I try to combine lots of ways of which different disciplines think about notions of the future.
I think that is important to mention physics when we talk about the future, because physics is involves the notion of time. Relativity, for example, is central to the development of modern physics and it is also central to our notions of what good design means. I personally think that it is one of the areas that is often left off when we talk about of the future.
In terms of teaching, I teach highly interdisciplinary courses that require students to bring their own diverse backgrounds to bear on their assignments. For example, my science fiction course is not a literary based course but draws on many disciplines. Science fiction reflects notions about history, sociology and anthropology as well as on the notion of design itself.
Which education models and practices do you think are more useful in your practice? Talks, lectures, workshops, experiences, e-learning, masters…Do you have an educational model or practice which you would consider to be the perfect one? Maybe something which is not currently possible or expected in current universities and schools?
My teachings are based on a lot of approach that are already existing. Even if I’m an academic, I don’t like to do too much lecturing, but it is a style that it always going to be around. Although I prefer to perform interactional modes of engagement and I like the idea of workshopping.
Teaching science fiction, for example, is not just about getting students to learn SF’s different styles, genres, authors or filmmakers. It is about teaching them to think about the functions and forms of science fiction. So I get my students to not only create their own science fiction but their own possible futures, as well.
Through the workshop style and a series of critiques students can think about their own – and each other’s – notion of future, and think about ways in which they can use different media – literatures, audio, film – to communicate these futures.
They can use many different styles to test how media forms potentially impact that process and also impact the ways in which audiences respond to these products.
As a teacher I also utilize a lot of guest lectures. It is useful for students to interact with those who practice. So, I bring in science fiction authors, designers and other people with expertise to interact and engage with the students.
Finally, what do you think if we say that “the Future doesn’t exist”?
My job involves studying fiction.
So, I believe that hundreds, if not thousands of futures already exist and have existed for a long period of time.
Filmmakers, artists, and designers, create the future everyday in the products that they are making.
These futures may not automatically match what we might call the actual “lived future.” But those futures already exist in real and meaningful ways. Many of the people that I’m studying are hoping that the futures they have created can, in fact, influence the ways in which this lived future may take shape.
I would say that the future, or futures, already exist and we are dealing with them in the fictional products that we are already reading, watching or listening to.