• I Look at What Has Been Done So Far: Talking to Nick Montfort

    When, how, by whom does the future get made? And how might critical study harness the most liberatory aspects of this process? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Nick Montfort. This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Montfort’s The Future. Montfort studies creative computing and develops computational art. His computer-generated books of poetry include #! (pronounced “shebang”), the collaboration 2×6, Autopia, and The Truelist, and he has published more than 50 additional digital projects, among them The Deletionist and Sea and Spar Between, both collaborations. Montfort’s books from The MIT Press include Twisty Little Passages and Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. He is professor of digital media at MIT and lives in New York and Boston.


    ANDY FITCH: Could we start with The Future explicitly stating that it will not foreground prediction and scenario-planning, instead prioritizing past models of individuals, movements, industries that actively developed a futurist world they had envisioned? How most broadly might you position this particular book alongside, if not popular futurist texts, then historical texts? Did you have to make an argumentative case to your publishers, for instance, for why the second half of a book titled The Future would focus on the history of computing? Or could you outline some historical precedents, like the (hopefully) peace-promoting spread of the Internet emerging out of the wartime Manhattan Project, that seem timely for how we might most constructively approach this topic of the future today?

    NICK MONTFORT: The book is about how imagination and invention can intervene to make what’s going to happen to us, to make that thing called “the future,” in some ways better. All of the historical consideration (and even some of the pre-historical speculation) is about how people have imagined what’s before them, and specifically how they take a proactive attitude — not just to consign themselves to destiny, or even to imagine an ability to foretell or foresee or predict and then react to what’s going to happen, but how they can actively take a part in thinking about our world. Of course that involves looking at what’s been done so far. It involves looking at the past. It involves historical perspective in particular ways, and also a literary perspective: looking at utopian formulations and how the imagination, how writing in different societies, might show ways for us to live better. I don’t think it’s an irony to imagine how other people have been future-makers, or how they have invented ideas (not just things) because these are neat or immediately possible, but also because they’re part of a vision of how we could have a better society, better culture, and a better world.

    I look at what has been done so far, in terms of the development of new media, digital media, and the computer. That’s one important part of the story. And of course people have also developed improvements and interventions into the future through imaginative writing, speculation, or design. Basically, The Future looks across different types of literary, artistic, computer-science, invention, and design practices — to see ways that people have taken into account, and have worked in imagining, designing, making, building, and writing toward the society and culture they envision as being before them. So how can we inflect, and even build, futures? From my perspective, that’s not the domain of a single discipline.

    There is a discipline called “futures studies,” which I really didn’t discuss in the book. In fact, I was pleased to find recently that there’s an Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction to the future, which is about futures studies entirely. If you want to read about this topic, that book is out there. That’s great, and I’m glad that there is discussion and coverage of these different perspectives, but I really didn’t want to contain my discussion of the future in any one particular discipline. I wanted to work across different design and artistic practices, different literary concepts, and I wanted to find particular lessons. I wanted to draw some connections that might be intellectually interesting, but also I wanted to draw lessons from activists, business people, people who might be working in academic industries or other contexts — who try to do different types of future-making today.

    Your answer pointed towards imagination, invention, intervention, and I’ll want to address all three of those elements. But first could we outline your book’s broader working definition of future-making, perhaps, again, with a particular focus on aspects that some more conventional futuristic accounts might underrate — among them the moral and political dimensions of such future-making, the cultivation of goals intended to extend or fortify or even realize for the first time foundational social norms (a fuller realization of democracy, for instance), the constructive harnessing of existing ideas/technologies alongside the invention of new concepts? Most generally, The Future’s discussions of future-making often seem to prioritize macrocosmic reflection on how specific technological innovations might best reconfigure prevailing social relations, or how progressive social visions might best channel and direct technological developments. Though how would you yourself outline present discourses of future-making in which you see this book intervening, and the types of argumentative pivots that your own conception of future-making seeks to provide?

    Well you’re right that technology is quite central to a lot of the discussion I have. Not everything that’s covered in the book, but certainly the pre-invention of the Web and the Dynabook and the notebook computer are topics wrapped up with technology. I think you’re also right to point out that my perspective is not that technology appears from no context at all, and somehow exerts ultimate influence over us as human beings living in society, but rather that social forces provide the context out of which people decide to explore different technologies, to invent different things, and to make use of technologies for particular purposes. There is an influence of technology on society, but there’s also, of course, the influence of society, culture, and history on the technologies that are developed. It’s a complex relationship. This doesn’t mean that we can just ignore and set aside what’s happening with technologies as if, for instance, the automobile didn’t do anything to effect the American landscape or didn’t have any influence on the country that we live in.

    Or on the climate.

    Obviously, yes. But it’s also the case that the automobile didn’t just manifest itself like an alien spacecraft and begin exerting its influence upon us. The ways in which infrastructure as well as vehicles themselves were developed existed within a cultural context. It pays to think deeply about these — to recognize an influence, but not be a simple technological determinist. This is certainly something I’ve tried to highlight in my discussion, for instance, of notebook computers. It’s not simply the case that the computer inevitably would be one particular type of object, that it would be a room-filling giant brain, or that it would be something that we carry around in our pocket as a smartphone or a book-shaped notebook computer. We had to decide whether we would build an institutional type of system, or whether this could be something that’s involved with the way people learn and think. That’s all part of the story of personal computing, of the notebook computer and the Dynabook. I think Alan Kay was one of the most reflective innovators, realizing that if his project was going to be successful, it was going to have an influence on the way that people thought and worked. It could have a better or worse influence, and he had to be attentive to this. Douglas Engelbart thought about this as well. So I do think that, of the variety of ways to make the future and to be influential in making society better, certainly development of technologies is a significant one. And there are ways that one can persuade people to be better to one another, that maybe aren’t as technologically inflected, particularly when we look at people’s capacity for new ways of thinking, people’s interacting and engagement with the environment. All of these are potentially useful ways to shape a possible future, to build new possibilities for society and culture.

    Within, say, more visionary or critical or philosophical contexts, could we start to track the roles of writers, not necessarily in terms of providing futuristic content, but perhaps new thought-methodologies opening readers onto untapped prospects for future-making? And even as The Future raises any number of classic questions concerning epistemologies of the future and futuristic discourse (how can we know, until the future reveals, whom to deem an idle dreamer, whom a systematic visionary, or which speculative vistas provide hopelessly vague and which surprisingly realizable/transformational scenarios, or which technological innovations will provide pedestrian steps and which epochal leaps?), your prose itself interests me because it adopts a future-tilting posture. It often steps out of its present considerations to announce where your argument will push next. Or on a more local level, a wry sense of humor circulates throughout the book, with an understated punchline often just about to come. But overall, on a global scale, The Future basically brings us to the present day and then suspends the trajectory, freeing us (hopefully, or one could feel compelled) to write the future ourselves. Could you discuss, amid these localized and globalized gestures in the book and/or in your work more broadly, such efforts to tap this perhaps most liberating aspect of the future (its unfixed, potentially galvanizing openness to our own engaged efforts), and could you maybe also address how more conventional modes of prognostication close off such possibilities for agency in their audience?

    The first thing to note is that there still is a place for prediction, for seeing and foretelling. If you want to figure out whether you should carry an umbrella, you might want to look at the weather forecast. There are very practical reasons why one would be concerned, and there are also things that we will almost certainly need to do. There are reasons to react actively to the damage to the environment leading to climate change, for instance. If we’re aware of the specifics (potential dangers, weather events, damage to ecosystems) we’ll be able to plan better under the circumstances. So I don’t mean to preclude this type of prediction having any place in dealing with the future. But people are often very limited by thinking that imagining the future is just purely thinking in this predictive mode. Still we could say that maybe this is a step up, and that centuries ago people essentially believed everything was fixed. There was not even value to thinking predictively. But my interest is in figuring out modes of thinking that are predictive but that also move beyond that, that aim to change the way things are, and to make a different future. Though it’s not always the case that that’s a rosy, happy future for everyone involved.

    The Italian Futurists (the Russians are different) were connoisseurs of technological violence, destruction, and warfare, and wanted to renew their culture by having everything more or less cleansed — though I do think the connotations for that term are different historically from today. “Cleansing” is now well recognized as a euphemism for genocide and destruction, and the Futurists began their cries prior to World War One. At the same time, I think Futurism is very problematic in its political dimensions as an art movement. But the Futurists did, in their work in art and also in manifesto-writing and literary practice, embrace (and find quite pleasing) this transgression of print aspects, of blending high and low culture, of distributing their work on fliers and posters, of working across the arts in various ways, as later avant-gardes would. While the Futurists had deeply flawed ideas, there were some very useful aspects to their approach to technology and media.

    They certainly saw that technology was very significant. In this particular case, I think that there are ways to look at the perspective of the Futurists and the first manifestoes, the writings, to make some connection to utopian thought and writing of a purely literary tradition — usually not as pointy as manifesto, and perhaps less austerely declarative, but more imaginative of the way that societies can work together. You also can look at design fiction, which has more focus on the nuts and bolts of particular possible futures and societies. I do think that whether the particular context for future-making is corporate, entrepreneurial, activist, academic — there are lessons to be drawn from all of these different engagements with the future, and all the different types of future-making represented by different sorts of writing, imagination, and intervention.

    In terms of intervention, I don’t know if we yet have articulated (though you do this well in the book), the place of something like critical theory in a historically minded futurist study. Where might critical theory manifest in futurist enterprises? No doubt a text can provoke present-day imaginations by positing plausible progressive social scenarios that seem imminently implementable if so far untried, or can offer acute and even absurd contrast to present unexamined biases and constrictive paradigms. But what specifically might we learn about hegemonic constraints on present socio-economic possibilities by considering, say, the fact that Edward Bellamy’s utopian vision could have appealed to wide audiences on the grounds of common sense and consensus values — and yet seems all the more unattainable 130 years later? How might histories of the future address the fact that, even as American society continues to reach the productive capacities outlined by preceding dreamy sci-fi utopias, it persistently fails to provide a corresponding sense of abundant resources and leisure time for ordinary citizens? Or which methods of future-thinking most systematically track and grapple with such pervasive social disappointments, even while striving to enable more positive outcomes still to follow?

    Well, what are the divisions between imaginations of the future? Some scenarios are more realistic and incremental. They build on existing sorts of social structures and daily life. For instance, the classic Corning design-fiction video A Day Made of Glass is a fine work, a great use of imagination, but of course it’s not about an alternate social system or replacing work as we know it — like getting rid of capitalism. It’s about how ways in which we live now can be productively and pleasingly extended by activating new sorts of glass circles for display, for shade, all throughout our built environment. So that’s one type of imagining of the future.

    Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, presented something much more dramatic, much further into the future (he was showing something like: maybe this will have happened to Boston by the year 2000). And one thing I find interesting about future-making is that, while people generally accept the idea that imagining or creating an invention can move us in a more desirable direction, other options can accomplish something similar. Like why not present something actually absurd, silly, outrageous, not going to happen? I was just at the opening of the “alt-facts” show at Postmasters downtown this weekend. Among other things, they had some of the newspapers that the Yes Men during the second Gulf War had printed up. It looked like the New York Times. It had the New York Times banner, and had a giant headline on top that says “Iraq War Ends.” They just handed them out on the street, saying “Extra, extra,” or at least there’s footage of actors passing them out. I don’t know how many were actually handed out. But you can look at something like that, this project of creating a hoax edition of the New York Times saying the war in Iraq is over, truly classic fake news, and ask “What’s the point of that? How did that help us to get to a better future?” Well, one reaction people may have would be to look at this paper and say “Why not? Why couldn’t the war in Iraq be over? We know that this is not the type of thing that can happen in a day, but why not?” And I’m not saying that being outrageous and providing these statements, these visions that are beyond credulity, is always the only way to proceed. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia contains at least a few situations where, amid what looks like a monastic environment, you get a few of these bizarre, outrageous things that are somewhat hard to figure out. So I think there’s a range of plausibility for what can count as important components of future-making. If you’re interested in putting forth a way to build the future, you should consider the full range of different types of imaginings you can offer.

    Italian Futurism, as you have indicated, provides an early-20th-century instance of language itself getting reshaped and newly mechanized as a result of technological change. You yourself at times have called for an “intellectual revolution” in the humanities, presumably with the arts included. More precisely, you have advocated for a revolution driven less by some tepid “digital humanities” topicality, than by systematically expanding our capacities for thinking, exploring, searching, researching. And as we continue to emerge from the long-term historical stasis that your book sketches (the eons of apparent atemporality in which humans thought they could perceive — or in which grammar and its denominations taught them to presume — fixed essences, identities, divine metaphysical harmonies), how might this intellectual revolution continue to refigure not just our definition of “human nature,” but our very prospects for self-reflection? Or what would it take, say, for computational arts or computational humanities to offer computer science new insights into itself? Or how might computer-science-enhanced humanism help us not only to predict and quantify particular future outcomes, but to conceive, visualize, clarify, and realize desirable social valuations? How could the humanities get back on the side, or have they ever been on the side, of helping to drive future-making rather than reacting to it (or even impeding it)?

    Humanistic and educational ideas were very important to Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, and a lot of the other pioneers in computers and particularly in personal computing. That includes John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, who developed at Dartmouth the BASIC programming language. That was in the context of a mathematics department, but they were trying to educate people at a liberal-arts college, and enrich education to include computing. Of course BASIC became very prominent, and a well-used programming language among young people who had personal computers. So there’s probably at least one manifesto that replies to your question. I’ll be specific here rather than being bold and visionary. I’ll be more incremental in discussing this. In the humanities and arts, we have some digital projects going on here and there, but with computation involved in a very simple way that has not been revolutionary. Consider fields like computational linguistics, computational biology, or computational economics — or, in a different way, architecture. These are fields in which computing is essential. Not only is computing essential, but, for instance, if you’re writing an economics dissertation, you can’t ignore (even if you’re not doing computational economics yourself) the results that have been made in computational economics. And the same would happen with computational biology. You need to discuss it. You have to include it. The other example, just to put a point on it, would be if an architect building in a major world city said: “I’m going to build this building, and I won’t use a computer.” That would obviously be the most radical, perverse gesture one could make. In all these cases, the computer is not optional.

    In the humanities and arts, it’s optional. You don’t have to say anything about the work of digital humanities when you’re doing your literature dissertation. I mean you might want to, but it’s not something that has revolutionized the field. But if you look at these other fields, like computational economics (which is not a repudiation of traditional economics), it’s using computation to extend what people learned and knew in their discipline about economics in new ways. That’s the case for architecture as well. We didn’t suddenly get rid of everything we knew about architecture when we had computers to help design buildings. Computation provides an extension. Computation is used to model these. So when we come to the humanities, we could ask: “Where’s the work that’s not just an optional, nice-looking digital project, but that models the way we think, humanistically or artistically? Where is it that our methods, as humanists and artists, have been enhanced by the use of computation?” Again, there are some experiments or works along these lines. For the most part, though, it isn’t there. Still we can look to the success of other disciplines and find models in those cases.

    My first thought though when you asked what humanities would contribute back to computer science is that, in general, it doesn’t work that way. What does material science give back to computer science? The only way that something makes a contribution to another discipline is if there’s work in the intersection that’s interesting. With computational linguistics, for example, we need some new techniques of computation. We need to understand the science of computers better in order to work on language in order to process language in different ways. By doing that, we learn new things about language as well. So it’s not particularly that the humanities would give something back to computer science. But if there’s a computational humanities, then of course, just like with computational economics, just like with computational biology, just like with computational linguistics, there would be more humanistic aspects of computer science.

    Your book also explores ways in which certain technologies have shaped users. And here we’ve talked a bit about inventors. We’ve talked about technological innovations. But I don’t want to ignore The Future’s recurrent emphasis upon something like participatory aesthetics (departing here from a more narrow sense of how that phrase gets used in contemporary visual-art conversations) as an active, humanistic, community-driven form of future-making. Or to pursue just one possible historical analogy: just as a widespread amateur engagement with chamber music narrowed, over several generations, from participation through the study, playing, writing of such compositions to the consumption of them (first through public expert performance, then through home-bound mass-marketed recording technologies), so, whereas millions of amateurs might have learned to code in the 80s (presumably in pursuit of pleasure, fun, discovery, knowledge for its own sake, still-to-be-codified professional and self-development), present-day more all-pervading computer usage often leaves non-specialists less equipped to help shape the technology rapidly reshaping their own lives. Within that broader context, could you offer some exemplary positive and negative historical models for how various forms of future-making have positioned their users?

    There’s lots to say. Once we had Super 8 cameras. Now YouTube is available and there’s not as much conventional filmmaking activity, but there’s more motion-picture production by individuals happening in various ways. But it wasn’t a smooth progression, with everyone getting their Super 8 cameras and then going out, learning filmmaking, and then continuing on. Instead we find that, among other concerns, media technologies and technologies for thinking and for computing can become overspecialized. They can become too good at doing these particular things. I know Alan Kay is a fan of the iPad, but I see it as a device highly specialized for very controlled media consumption. It’s not for exploration, for creation. I’m sure there are more, but I can think of one artist who draws things on a mobile phone or iPad. There’s very little use of that for the traditional types of media production and creation and creativity that we would consider as being positive for computing.

    Of course it’s also the case that Apple controls the market for apps, and you can buy and sell things for zero dollars if you go through all the hoops and get everything approved as if you were a professional publisher. In general, though, in the 1980s (and still, if you have a personal computer), you could make programs and other media and just give them away to people. You can put them, today, on a USB drive, or you can put them online in various ways. Many people use a service to do that, but you don’t even have to. You can find other ways of posting and sharing work. But overall, some particular media ecologies are much more amenable to creativity. Very few people are going to use their video-game console as a way of creating work and sharing it with other people. It’s set up to do something else.

    So to the question of how the concept of the user is imagined: part of it, obviously, is that if you’re deploying information technology in a business, then your model is not that people are going to be creating, exploring. You’re using this computing technology to have people carry out some business process. That’s your interest. And as you evolve and get better and better, the capabilities of that system for individual creativity may very well diminish. I think of the types of users imagined by people like Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, and Douglas Engelbart in developing his particular methodology and his NLS oN-Line System. He considered that we will need to have someone who’s a thinker, a maker — basically someone like himself, someone who is doing the same type of work, who’s doing computer programming, and who is trying to enhance and build a system. Alan Kay had in mind children of all ages, but he was focused, certainly, on young computer users who were not the subjects of drill and practice, but were given the freedom to create, to play, to share their work in an open and positive environment. The most generous advances in the capability of the computer in allowing people to be creative have come not necessarily when one considers children as the exclusive users, but when there is a different attitude toward what computing is, and when we consider that it’s a way of learning, a way of exploring, a way of thinking, a way of developing further means of computer use, of “bootstrapping,” as Engelbart would say. Those are some general cases. Again, there always will be special-purpose computers that are not amenable to people for exploration and creative use. When I go to get money from an ATM, it’s OK with me that there is a computer system that is dedicated to that purpose. It’s hopefully secure. It doesn’t allow me to browse a file system and find games or anything like this. That’s fine. The question isn’t whether we’ll have systems like that (of course we will), but to what extent will we also have the more open-ended systems that allow not just an instrumental function of this sort, not just the consumption of media that’s been prepared for us, but also: communication, creativity, play, exploration, and design — all by the user.

    I was hoping we would get to design, even as we acknowledge the potentially overspecialized, the potentially too good. If we adopt Charles Eames’s definition of design as a “plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose,” if we echo the familiar formulation of design solving preexisting problems for preexisting purposes, how/where might we still tap liberatory, paradigm-reshaping, autonomy-expanding, community-enhancing, progressively utopian possibilities within design itself?

    As a practice, the activity of design can be very important in future-making. Of course, if I were playing to the designer, or trying to play as if I were a designer, I could have written a book entirely about design work as it pertains to the future. There are books of this sort. To me, the boundary, if there is one, between design and art, depends on who you ask. I don’t think Paul Rand thought there was a difference between design and art, but that boundary is an interesting one, and is, in some cases, the freedom artists have not to address a particular problem, not to have a client lead them to other sorts of interesting provocations and imaginings of the future. Of course, there’s also the danger in a great deal of design that it’s highly (perhaps overly) focused on keeping the materials and the overall function of a particular piece of furniture the same, while decreasing the cost. Obviously, there’s a potential for overly narrow extension and focus.

    One of the interesting things is that it’s hard to know, if you haven’t studied electrical engineering and computer science, what’s going on inside a smartphone, for instance. What’s happening when someone makes an advance or an improvement? It’s very difficult. On the other hand, if you replace a slightly uncomfortable chair with one that works really perfectly for you in a particular context, and you see the difference in the way this chair is made, in what it’s made out of, how it’s put together — those are aspects of design that also can be very welcoming to, as you put it, the user, to an everyday citizen and member of society. Or by extension, you can read a work that is written to describe a particular future, but you can also see and feel and make some immediate connection to possible design improvements. It may be that one airplane you’re on is like being tortured, and the other one with a slightly different seat design is comfortable enough to sustain your life and make travel bearable, and you marvel at how this happens. I wouldn’t use the term “democratizing,” but these are aspects of design that are accessible to the everyday users of designed objects. It’s possible to learn something about these objects, whereas learning a small amount about fields of advanced technology is less helpful. Also, it’s interesting to think about how art and literary movements, in their particular formulations, have made these contributions. So design is perhaps something different, and how will its contribution to future-making therefore be different? These are some rambling thoughts and questions I have about why I’m fascinated by this.

    To close more broadly then by pointing towards your own multidisciplinary work as historian/theorist/practitioner of futurist technological/social/artistic projects, as poet invested in various histories of literary experiment, what can the proleptic processes of particular avant-gardes (their own recuperations of lost, dormant, or long-nascent potentialities) teach us about how we might simultaneously and most fruitfully embrace the past, the present, and the future?

    One element here is that you have a broader scope as a literary or digital artist, or anyone working in the arts. You might do projects that are very bound up in the particularities of an urban experience. You might do a project that is highly personal, or a project that’s about perception and seeing. You can choose, if you like, to address these broader topics in a way that not everyone is given permission in their work to try to address aspects of future-making, or of the relationship between these different eras. On the other hand, I suppose that you have, in the so-called “fine arts,” typically an obsession with cultural heritage and with the work that’s already been done. There’s the need to refer to earlier work, and the need to be cognizant of art history. That is quite significant. There’s the weight of the past also, and perhaps the anxiety of influence and all these other sorts of ways in which people may see themselves or their circle participating in past, present, and future. But if we allow for a distinction between art and design, then one of the things in art is that you have the possibility to sketch, explore, to find what it is that you’re doing in a project as you go along. You might start from an interest in a material or a particular medium. If you’re a digital artist, you might start from an interest in the way that a particular computer system is organized, and its capabilities.

    One of the projects that I’ve done in the last year is a digital project that’s online as a Web page, a JavaScript program, and a Python program, and also available as a book. It’s called Autopia, which is obviously a utopian reference, and also the name of the car ride in Disneyland. It’s a generated text that consists of headline-style sentences that use only the plural and singular names of cars. For instance, “Rangers Escape Pathfinders,” “Dodge Edges,” “Jimmy Golfs,” “Grand Cherokee Excels,” “Regal Scions Safari.” “Highlander Dodges Premier Edge,” “Skylarks Rendezvous.” It’s a 256-page book of just this sort of text, except for four pages of code at the end. It doesn’t stay in the lanes, but it’s arranged to vaguely look like traffic. When I started it, I didn’t know I was starting it. I was in Los Angeles, walking around, writing down car names, and thinking about the categorization that one could impose or that would fall out from these names. You could name these cars after animals — and they generally are fast or tough animals, or birds. But they also have to have a certain sense to them. You can’t name it an “Ostrich” or an “Emu” or something like that. The type of bird has to be graceful.

    Probably at least 50% masculine, too.

    Yes, and I was fascinated to see that there are also several native peoples represented in car names.

    I was going to say that you should read in Cadillac Michigan sometime.

    And I eventually realized it’s the case of the English language that most nouns function as verbs also. Many of these names can also be verbs, so you can have things like “Intrepid Villagers Ram Cherokee.” You can actually act it out. Some of these sentences actually enact conflict in the American West.

    So the modular syntax (not just the denominative points of reference) reads back our history, as different parts get moved around?

    Putting this together was a way of exploring a sort of writing, a lexicon, that has already been devised. They’re not all U.S. cars, but they’re all cars that could be on the road in the U.S., at least as far as I could tell. It’s as if there were a world populated entirely by these vehicles, in which all actions, everything undertaken, is a line-up of these vehicles. It’s not a future-building or future-making sort of piece, but it’s a way of thinking about the names that specific people, specific cultures, give to these vehicles — which, again, happen to have been extraordinarily transformative to our lives over the past century.

    I read from Autopia in a few places before I had put the book together, and before I even put the Web page together. In Los Angeles, someone said: “I can recognize all of those cars that you mentioned, just by the headlights.” Some people have very intense relationships to automobiles. Some people have driven an automobile that’s mentioned, and they associate something about that experience. That’s a way in which, instead of just picturing myself making it into the work, these responses helped me to think through the project. Autopia might not be a work of design, in the sense that it doesn’t solve a problem — it’s just an arrangement of these words that label cars. But perhaps it’s some way of thinking about what our relationship to automobiles is, and how it differs from person to person. I’m car free. I do have a driver’s license. I’ve had a car in the past, but obviously I don’t have the same relationship as these Los Angelinos who spend significant parts of their life in a car, behind some of these vehicles. And it fascinates me how the Cherokee, the Navaho, the Dakota get memorialized (or otherwise recorded) in these car names, in the different types of roles or professions of the Navigator, the Pilot, the Villager, the Explorer, and so on. I don’t have a big lesson from it. It’s just something that I, myself, and hopefully other people, could use. In the best of cases, there’s a moment when they realize that these are sentences that are all made out of the names of cars, and perhaps that’s a funny and rewarding moment. But hopefully it also serves (at least for me, and maybe for others) as a way of continuing to think through this relationship we have with automobiles, which is an important one. It’s also one that may be changing in an extraordinary way. Who knows whether in 10 more years people will drive vehicles, at all or to the extent that they do today? So Autopia is my way of offering one of these ostensibly pointless (but also possibly future-making, or future-tending) activities that might have an unusual and maybe even a very productive meaning. I just don’t know what it is yet.