Speculative Whatnots and Whatchamacalits

Manzak: Speculative design for remote controlled audio-visual entertainments robot, Warren Chalk + Ron Herron:

Everybody’s “speculating” nowadays. Although we couldn’t help but learn a lesson or two from the fallout of overzealous financial speculation, speculative practice seems to be chugging along in other fields and spreading to new ones. Speculative design has quite a history. Just what “speculative” means, though, depends on the context: in some cases, it refers to design performed without a contract or payment — whipping up a few proposals for a client before he or she decides what, if anything, is worth compensating. In other contexts the term “speculation” has been tied to “design fictions,” which, according to Bruce Sterling, can range from “postulated objects or services” to “elaborate hoaxes,” and often draw inspiration from sci-fi and productively play with temporality, pulling from the past and projecting into the future. Since it began in the mid-2000s, BLDG BLOG has been a site of “urban speculation,” and now at UIC there’s a Department of Urban Speculation that claims a tripartite commitment to “unsolicited experimentation,” “rigorous investigation,” and “integrated proposals.” I have to wonder what methodologies — what “rigorous” investigatory practices and experimentation techniques — and epistemologies are implied by all this speculation.

There’s also a “speculative materialist” contingent of philosophers who promote object-oriented ontology — although some dismiss the movement as the imaginings of a bunch of “para-academic” bloggers (The Public School, by the way, is currently running a “para-academic” course that addresses, among its many intriguing topics, “speculative medievalisms” and “gnostic vertigo.” Of course Lovecraft is in there.). There’s even speculative biology, which dreams up pseudo-fictional evolutionary paths. What if humans could cross-breed with scorpions? Ew. I don’t want to think about that.

And recently I’ve spoken with quite a few colleagues who are taking up “speculative” research projects; either they’re examining speculative practices, or they’re engaging in speculative practice themselves. But what does that mean?

I say we need a genealogy of “speculative” practice in the academy and the professions. The OED says the term is derived from the Latin speculāt-, participial stem of speculārī — to spy out, watch, examine, observe, etc. I’m not sure how much, or what kind of, “examining” or “observing” is going on some of this work — some of which seems like a lot of “dude, wouldn’t it be cool if…!” conjecture, or ego-driven trademarking of new flavors of object-oriented ontology (thus exemplifying just how hard it is to remove the human ego from the center of even supposedly object-centered models).

But of course the term “speculative” has taken on other meanings: in the mid-19th century, “speculation” came to mean “to talk (a matter) over conjecturally”; and in the early 20th century, “to invest in an enterprise which involves considerable risk.” These two denotations seem to me more consistent with some of this contemporary practice — a practice based on conjecture, and investment with perhaps little consideration of potential risk (which makes sense, since some of this stuff is obviously ‘just for fun’) or willingness to take on significant risk.

What does it mean to incorporate such work into design and research? And why should we be “speculating” so feverishly now, when other forms of “speculation” have recently burned us so badly?

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