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How representations of the future are mired in the past: a case study

22/09/2015
Gretta Louw

Featured image: The Mercedes-Benz ‘F 015 Luxury in Motion’ intelligent car at its European premiere at Ars Electronica in Linz.

Intro

An analysis of the Mercedes-Benz collaboration with Ars Electronica for the European launch of the brand’s intelligent car prototype – the F 015 Luxury in Motion – and the problems that many high-end brands in traditional industries seem to have envisioning a believable future. This article is a collaboration between Gretta Louw and Natalie Kane.

Time is a continuum. The ‘future’ is defined by being further along the continuum than the present, and further again than the progressively distant past. Representations of the future – from popular culture to product design and futurism – are therefore always relative to and, to a significant degree, representative of the point on the continuum at which they are created. This is a fact that we are unlikely to ever escape.

The Ars Electronica is one of the most venerable art-tech festivals. Taking place annually in Linz, Austria, since 1979, the five-day event invites international artists, scientists, and researchers to confront an interdisciplinary theme in the context of workshops, exhibitions, and symposia. An indication of the level of recognition – beyond that of the insular art world – that the festival has attained over its three and a half decades of operation is that Mercedes-Benz chose the Post City exhibition for the European launch of its F 015 autonomous vehicle.

Had the F 015 been presented as a discrete display – product placement bought with sponsorship funding – most would have accepted this readily. Festivals of this size require funding. The display could have been suitably pseudo high-tech, and would have attracted interested festival-goers without complicating, or compromising, other positions in the exhibition. The conscious choice was made, however, to position the prototype as a part of the broader exhibition and festival program, which forces us to judge both the presentation of the car and the curation decisions as we would any other exhibiting art/tech collaboration.

Interior view of the Mercedes-Benz F 015. Photo courtesy of Natalie Kane.

Let’s start with the curation. The F 015 was grouped together with the ESEL-Complain – a concept bike that both physically marks and digitally records details of road degradation as the user rides, and the Fahrradi (a wordplay on the German “fahrrad”, meaning bicycle) — a tongue in cheek model sports car made out of what looked like glossy papier-mâché with pedal-powered seating. The spirit of these installations leans towards pursuing a common good through technology and using networks to achieve practical, meaningful gains (ESEL-Complain) and anti-consumerism (Fahrradi). Within this exhibition context the F 015 ‘Luxury in Motion’ seemed crass and out of place.

To make matters worse, just on the other side of the mobility-centered exhibits, less than 50m from the flashy F 015 display, was a full-sized UNHCR tent installed alongside the photo project Beyond Survival. The large-format prints depicted the immensity of the refugee camps and captured the humanity contained therein, despite the often inhumane conditions. The juxtaposition of this absolute poverty and dispossession against the emphasis on luxury and privilege in the display of the F 015 portrayed an obscene ambivalence to current social, political, and economic concerns. The ‘future’ as compiled through this curated lens is one of offhand indifference and even more extreme divides between rich and poor.

Ars Electronica made a concerted effort to contextualise the product placement in their communication and press around the launch. Citing the probability that self-driven cars are going to rapidly permeate the market, it was promised that the ‘collaboration’ with Mercedes-Benz would spotlight “autonomous motoring in the shared space populated by human beings and intelligent cars” and that it would “elaborate on the urban planning and architecture needed to facilitate these developments.” These are interesting themes. Sadly, they were completely and utterly missing from Mercedes-Benz’s presentation.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a corporation to explore the impacts of the technology they are developing; after all, what do they care, as long as it sells? But at least they could have addressed some of the practical concerns about getting self-driving cars on the road. Will they need to be on their own specific road networks or will they drive alongside less predictable human-driven cars? What will be the impact on infrastructure?

With even any acknowledgement of these issues absent, the presentation focused purely on marketing; Mercedes-Benz aimed to encourage consumers to foster a relationship to the brand and a desire for this particular luxury vehicle. The way they did this was through a focus on two key elements: quality design and technological innovation.

The mood board, which stretched over about 6 metres, contained so many pictorial faux pas it was comical. If there were complete wall displays for automotive manufacturers available for download (as a Word file) it could not have looked more like stock photography confetti.

The board had it all: a 1950s Charles and Ray Eames La Chaise chair; an espresso; an hour glass; a sea shell. It was a kind of pictogrammatic translation of marketing tropes with which we are all so familiar that they do actually make a kind of perverse sense. We are so saturated with marketing imagery and advertising campaigns that they have collectively developed a short-hand without us really noticing; like mainlining associative connections with their products to our brains.

What’s interesting here is that Mercedes-Benz has decided that the best way to market the future is to draw on the past. Is this because of a lack of imagination on the part of the brand, or is it a reflection of the public’s distrust of the future and new technologies, which this campaign seeks to soothe by presenting such familiar, non-threatening imagery?

The question is not resolved by the ‘artist sketches’ of the car’s interior that were clearly made post-production. Are these supposed to reassure future customers that although the car navigates itself, it was made by the human hand and mind and is therefore safe? Doesn’t this completely miss the whole point about why networked and self-navigating vehicles are advantageous, namely, as Ars Electronica rather tritely puts it in a press release, putting “an end to fender-benders, traffic jams and searching for a parking spot.”

Artist impressions of the Mercedes-Benz F 015 interior.

The centrepiece of the information display was a promotional video that emphasised the display’s product message: luxury design and technological advancement combining to evoke awe. The only way this mood was conveyed was as a sort of paint-by-numbers of buzzwords and tired visual cues, cobbling together as many cliches for the two key concepts as possible. In this way, at least, the video perfectly complemented the ludicrous mood board.

What took the video from poor to insulting, was the oblivious sexism it championed and the absolute lack of multiculturalism. Literally every single person who appeared in the piece was white. All were wearing western-style business clothes. Surely a company of the international reach of Mercedes-Benz should be beyond such provincialism.

White guys doing it by themselves in the Mercedes-Benz promotional video.

Going from bad to worse, the video included only one woman among a flood of laughably earnest-looking, white, male faces attached to preposterously overblown quotes. Rubbing salt in the wound of this casual sexism, the single female employee included in the video is silenced in the video; she is given no soundbite like her male colleagues, and instead is shown handling fabrics (another cliche). She is presenting her fabric choices to two male colleagues who are discussing her choice: In contrast, all the male designers are shown individually, in close up.

Female designer shows her male colleagues her fabric choices.

According to the depiction of the future, in the Future of Mobility Mercedes-Benz exhibition, we can expect a regression to the social politics of the 1950s. Women will fulfil the insultingly limiting trope of providing a ‘feminine touch’ to the non-technical aspects of design. People of colour simply do not exist at all in the development of this future Mercedes-Benz world, or so the video at Ars Electronica (as well as other online promotional material on the brand’s website) would seem to suggest.

On the back of those very depressing observations, it was almost a welcome comic relief when the video suddenly switched tack. Inexplicably the viewer is now confronted with a vaguely 90s looking mock-up of a computer interface. The high point of this absurdity, though, comes when the screen is suddenly filled with scrolling zeroes and ones in grey tones and neon pink. Because: the future.

Scrolling zeroes and ones in the Mercedes-Benz promotional video.

This video, in under 2 minutes, offered one of the most realistically dystopian visions of the future imaginable. It is, apparently, a future in which existing racial and gender-based prejudices have been engrained to the extent that they are no longer questioned. The current battle being waged by tech-savvy artists, educators, and activists to open up the black-boxes of technology and encourage the public to educate themselves so that they are not forced into technological illiteracy has been lost. The public is, apparently, as baffled by code as the non-ruling classes were with the written word during the Middle Ages. And the power to design, and therefore dictate, lies firmly with white, middle class men.

Events like Ars Electronica need corporate sponsors, but they must be held to the same critical standards as the participating artists if they are going to be presented as part of the exhibition. If Mercedes-Benz want to be taken seriously about future design, they need to take on real issues – even just the practical considerations of how self-driven vehicles will be integrated into the existing infrastructure, what specific conditions they may require etc. By so completely relying on these utterly ridiculous, stock photo tropes, however, the company not only missed an opportunity to present its own unique vision of the future, it also presented itself as unoriginal, disingenuous, and archaic.

But what is more fascinating is this tendency, particularly amongst established, high-end brands in traditional industries, to present the future as simply a more luxurious version of the past. What is noticeably absent is any real thought about the flow-on effects of new technologies. Or a clear vision of how things will be different and how they will be the same. Maybe that’s the point – the preferred version of the future for those currently in the top-earners bracket is one that simply reinforces their power and privilege. This too is short-sighted though, in a world economy that is proving to be far less stable and western-centric than the majority of today’s 1% would hope.

In the face of a global situation in which the rate of technologically-driven cultural change is only accelerating, it would seem crucial that we get better at imagining what the future is going to look like – and fast.

This article is a collaboration between Gretta Louw and Natalie Kane (http://optimizethings.com/).