Speculative fiction gets out of narratives and into a catalog.
Image: TBD Catalog
For $60 the EnVisage not only eliminates red-eye in social network pics, it restores hairlines, and removes evidence of drunkenness, lewdness, or otherwise bad behavior. Opposite the EnVisage, there's the $14.99 Reodorizer that makes ereaders smell like paper, mp3 players smell like dusty vinyl, and your Roomba smell like a wet dog when it's raining. Thirty bucks buys 100 Digestif™ pills that allow you to "eat as much as you want; digest only what you need."
The only caveat: none of these products are for sale. They're only found in the catalog of the future.
Near Future Laboratory's TBD Catalog offers products that don't exist yet. This is actually harder than it sounds, not because of the difficulty of imagining new stuff, but because the present keeps catching up.
Julian Bleecker, a Near Future Lab co-founder and creative director of the TBD Catalog, told me that former Wired editor Chris Anderson had already tweeted at them to cheerfully tell them that one of their fake products—the "Child Follow Flying AV"—was already real.
— Joseph Flaherty (@josephflaherty) October 8, 2014
— Chris Anderson (@chr1sa) October 13, 2014
A brainstorm of products that the TBD team cooked up in October 2012 was already dated by the summer of 2014 and had to be revised. Some speculative products didn't even last that long.
"Some things you imagine and you think, 'oh that'd be weird or cool,' and then the next day you see it on Alibaba, like 10 for 30 bucks," Bleecker said.
It takes a certain amount of optimism to estimate that "panda jerky" is only going to run $6/pound in near future, and also promise that it is only sourced from ethically culled from populations of feral, urban pandas.
It's not that the TBD Catalog is utopian or dystopian; its defining characteristic is making the futuristic mundane. "Cracked 3D Star Wars solid models" anticipate a world where 3D printing is cheap and ubiquitous enough for the most frivolous and relatable pursuits.
If you read carefully, there are sly references to how the world has changed throughout the TBD Catalog. Product review blurbs on the "QR Code Renewal Shredding Service" are attributed to a "Zhang" in Uganda and a "Chang" in Cameroon, a nod to China's growing investment in Subsaharan Africa. A review of a $700 heads-up display telescope—do we really not have these yet?—is written by someone in Pyongyang, China.
"It's a very light way to imply change rather than having to do the very didactic work of writing an academic white paper, or long essay bolstering your argument with facts," Bleecker said. "In my mind it's a much more modern way to talk about the future, rather than saying 'here, I will sit in my chair on high and tell you about the future.'"
The TBD Catalog does what science fiction does, but freed from a narrative.
The TBD Catalog does what science fiction does—it could be described science fiction, although "design fiction" is more apt—but freed from being a short story, a novel, a movie or other narrative forms.
Tonally the TBD Catalog shoots for pretty straight-forward ad copy, but sly jokes creep in on the sides. One review of the "A.L. Life Coach" guru software notes how much he likes chatting with J.G. Ballard on long commutes, for instance.
The paper is no joke, though. It's not just a question of actually making something to sell, or freezing the content in time by printing it. Bleecker said the rationale for printing felt "less like a rationale and more like a revelation" that emerged while the team was gathered to work on the catalog in San Francisco, where real estate ads and stacks of flyers and postcards still proliferate.
"It struck me that in the future we're imagining [paper] will be around, because people will look for any hook to get people's attention to sell stuff," he said. "It's not all going to be your phone buzzing or hi-tech billboards; someone somewhere is going to say, 'I've got a good rate on printing up 10,000 flyers so I'm going to do that,' because it's less of a hassle than a Google ad buy."
Despite what Wired says, the catalog deliberately resists listing any year; it's just "near future." Given the pace of things, the commitment to plausibility and realism in the products that the catalog is "selling," it doesn't seem like it will be long before the catalog of the future is obviously simply a product of 2014.
The TBD Catalog is in print and therefore already hurtling towards artifact status; to be laughed at while chomping on panda jerky tomorrow.