Visions as Polaris (or – a guiding star)

“[T]o successfully navigate the many uncertainties facing us in the future, businesses need to have a North Star. Even during tough times, you need to know where you’re going, and how you’re going to pull through this.”¦ I believe one of the best ways to articulate this vision is to immerse ourselves in an inspirational view of what the world could look like five, 10, 15 years from now”

– Stephen Elop, President of Microsoft Business Division,
Wharton Business School, 27th February 2009

Over the last week I’ve been working on a new chapter for my thesis, which I hope may also be a journal article, on the production of what I’ve come to call (in shorthand) ‘vision videos’. A key case study is Microsoft’s recent ‘Future Vision of 2019‘, not least because the President of the aforementioned company’s Business Division recently spoke at length about how what is represented in the associated video(s) also represents the guiding values and goals for current and near-future research. Two interesting points might be made about this particular example as a ‘future of the present’, following Mike Michael’s analysis.

First, at ten years in ‘the’ future, what is depicted is framed as sufficiently close to the present for Elop to claim the vision represents what’s do-able: ‘Every single thing here is something that could be real’, and sufficiently distant from the present to absolve the company from having to specify the ‘what’ and ‘when’ of delivery.

Second, the production of such visions is rendered trivial by explaining away how they aren’t far-fetched nor particularly unique, and yet this trivialisation is political – it lends legitimacy. To produce such (video) visions requires quite a bit of imagination, and significant resources. The aesthetics have a political agency, the specificity of the appearance of the world depicted, how the devices and systems will look and how they will be used, attempts to foreclose possibility. The inference is – this is the Microsoft future and this will be how the future looks.

<a href=";showPlaylist=true" target="_new" title=".">Microsoft Office Labs&#8217; Productivity Future Vision</a>

Mr Elop introduced the above vision video as follows:

“Everything in this video is based on research and technology explorations from across Microsoft, and throughout the industry. This is not science fiction, nor is it Hollywood imagineering”¦ Watch carefully because in every frame there’s something new and advancing in terms of how technology will enable the improvement of productivity for businesses and individuals.”

Again, to borrow from Mike Michael’s analytic frame, if we think about these vision videos as ‘textualisations’, the connotation of material form, they perform in and on the present. These videos are not representations of ‘future presents’, but rather they are performances of ‘present futures’. In moving, on screen and in-mind, they ‘take time’ in the present and are therefore afforded an agency to act upon the present.

What makes vision videos interesting to me then is not that they are shiny, beautifully produced images of a future to which we can (or must! – according to some) aspire, but rather that they do something in the present, which I’d argue is under-researched. Stay tuned for more…

Edit: I had linked to the wrong video above, Mr Elop showed the ‘Future Vision of Productivity‘ not the shorter montage.

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