The Future T.B.D.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The TBD Catalog soon to be published by the Near Future Laboratory is a fictional catalog of possible products, all described and illustrated like mail-order props in some unrealized everyday life of tomorrow.

Part satire, part industrial brainstorm, it’s a mix of impractical ideas and thought-provoking future goods, whether that means the absurd weather-sensing hair extensions or (entirely plausible) DIY home-bioluminescence kits.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The New Future Lab’s goal was to “take the things that seemed liminal, the things in the laboratories, in the public media, in science-fiction films, in economic projections and then extrapolate these ideas and prototypes and make them into ‘things’ in the near future.” They sought “to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, reconsider what we may take for granted.” To come up with tomorrow’s products today.

It is the catalog as speculative literature, or the inventor’s notebook as a mode of critical inquiry. Call it counter-production: something that creatively mocks and toys with the idea that we can only experience futurity through the cyclical release and ritual consumption of new commodities.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The resulting objects, services, home goods, and even new forms of food are not just “hyperbolic perfections,” as the authors write, or sleek and empty new corporate products, but “things as they would exist as part of normal, ordinary, everyday life. If you stopped today and [were] transported to the near future, what would the world look like?”

What products would you buy? What services would you rely on? What would sit at home on your shelves?

The group’s hope was that, in answering these questions, they might discover—even if only in parody—the outline of the world to come and reveal many of the false assumptions built into a market-based vision of tomorrow.

Along those lines, for example, they posit something called algoriture, or an emergent library of algorithmically-written literature, AI-generated on the fly.

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

These are like little machine folktales produced through some narrative averaging of other written works, priced by genre and archetype.

Each text is thus “a guaranteed unique, custom book for you based on books you’ve read and enjoyed—and a matrix of genre specifications you provide. Each book is guaranteed unique and guaranteed enjoyable—or your money back. Only works of fiction. Genres: romance, technothriller, science-fiction, fantasy, thriller, young adult (incl. fairy tale), mystery and more.”

[Image: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

The actual catalog—which begins shipping on September 1, 2014—is “not your near future of superlative Silicon Valley exuberance,” they write, “where you happily 3D-print a perfect set of lease-licensed Opinel steak knives or blissfully commute to work in your fascistically sleek Google-powered, chem-battery fueled autonomous vehicles. Nor is this the abysmal near future where you huddle in the smoldering foxholes of apocalyptic ruin. TBD Catalog runs through the middle. It is neither extreme. It is a design fiction about a normal, ordinary everyday near future.”

[Images: The TBD Catalog from the Near Future Laboratory].

In the end, the authors write, “A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store.”

Consider ordering a copy to see if it has the desired effect.

3 thoughts on “The Future T.B.D.”

  1. So tempted by this- last night we were talking how speculative sci-fi really lacks a serious amount of imagination. A case to point, the Personal Communicator has been a staple gadget for decades, no one predicted anything like the weaponisation of sexuality that smart phones has enabled, at least as far as I can remember.
    Sexbots yes, but nothing like gay sex apps like Grindr, no dick pics, nor sexual harassment via Facebook apps.
    Don't even get me started of cloning technology and the possibilities of cannibal cuisine…

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