What’s Breakfast Cereal Got To Do With The Future?

This is a re-syndication of The Design Fiction Newsletter 002. If you like this, why not subscribe? And if you believe in supporting good, meaty, thoughtful content like this, why not become a Patron on, you know — Near Future Laboratory Patreon. Your support would be most appreciated! It’s a strong signal that this material is meaningful to you in the form of, essentially, a cup of coffee which is known to always helps with writing.

One: Consider the Diegetic Prototype

What was that box of breakfast cereal doing in Minority Report, anyway? A sci-fi film set in the future? And breakfast cereal?

Isn’t the future robots and impossibly clever algorithms. Isn’t it sleek cars that drive themselves to pick up your dry cleaning? The future is delivery drones and Mars colonies. It’s everything simpler, more rational, nicely ordered, more graphs that go up and to the right. More perfect. More more.

Maybe you didn’t catch the scene. It’s been awhile- Minority Report came out in 2002, after all. Take a moment and review. It’s just 19 seconds long.

In this scene Tom Cruise plays the lead character, named John Anderton. He’s pretty depressed and quite drug-addled and because he’s depressed and drug-addled, he absent-mindedly pours a mouthful of some junky Pine & Oats breakfast cereal into his mouth. I guess because he’s emotionally eating? I mean, Cruise/Anderton has lost his son and on top of everything else — he stops crimes that haven’t happened yet 10 on and 10 off everyday except Tuesdays..that’s enough to put anyone in a state.

So we might wonder, what purpose does the cereal box serve in this moment? It’s certainly not there because the story is about Pine & Oats, or about breakfast cereal. And there are plenty of other ways to establish state of mind than giving a character a box of cereal to throw. (Although a grown man throwing a box of kids’ breakfast cereal across a room does a pretty good job of undergirding his miserable state of mind.)

I’d say that the box and its tossing is there primarily because this bit of action helps indicate where interactive advertising and persuasion technology could quite possibly end up in the future.

This box of cereal acts as diegetic evidence about the future state of advertising technology.

We’re meant to absorb this meaning of the cereal box below the layer of the narrative movement of the story proper. We don’t stop the story in our heads and begin to ponder ad-tech, at least not if our attention is in the story and following the primary story arc. In the Design Fiction argot, we call this kind of prop/object a diegetic prototype.

This is a pretty important and powerful concept. It is a way of implying characteristics about a world without having to build the entire world. It suggests rather than predicts. It allows us to witness the future in a modest way, on the ground, from the perspective of normal, ordinary, everyday experience rather than assuming we can see and know everything, which is what predictions about the future attempt to do. Diegetic prototypes contain clues rather than complete pictures. Complete pictures and predictions are nothing much more than hubris. We can never see everything. That’s what’s called the ‘God Complex’. It’s neurotic. Avoid it at all costs. (And those who claim they predict or are a predictor, even a future visionary — they usually charge a lot of mazuma. That should tip you off.)

How did a box of cereal end up there? I don’t know for sure, of course, but I’ve talked to some friends who were involved in the production and there are some clues. Minority Report was released in 2002. In the pre-production of the film a small workshop was put together in which a group of clever creative folks got together to consider the broad technocultural contours of the larger world of Minority Report. The task of this workshop was to help imagine how the trends just at the edge of the ‘2002 present’ might normalize and play out in the everyday, ordinary life of 2054, when Minority Report takes place.

This material was synthesized and kept by the film’s production designer, Alex McDowell, in what he referred to as the ‘2054 bible.’ It contained the characteristics and attributes of that world. These ‘story bibles’ are quite routine in contexts like film and video games. I would advise that similar sorts of representations be created for any endeavor that expects to inhabit the world, whether in the near or far future. These containers provide guidance and insights into the future world that may never appear ‘on screen’ or ‘in game’, but they help align the team as to the overall vision and provide a place where everyone can settle their imaginations and comprehension of the world. Sometimes they even become a plan.

What does the box of cereal from the future actually do? What makes it ‘from the future?’

In the scene we see that it has a little goofy digital animation that plays on the package itself, with Pine & Oats doing the fun-for-kids Pine & Oats breakfast cereal dance-and-song when the box is picked up.

As the film’s audience, in that moment, we are tuned into a few clues as to the box of cereal’s futuristic character.

First, persuasion technology has made the box of cereal into another attention demanding, distraction-inducing interactive screen. That has a certain resonance, doesn’t it? Screens, as you know, have become pervasive end-points to voracious, coercive algorithms that grab attention and/or revenue. There is a sense today of the inevitability of that trend into the future such that any surface that could accommodate a screen would be fitted out with one, one way or another.

Second, we see that when you pick the box up, Pine & Oats sing at you. Put the box down, they stop. What we see here is a kind of embedded interactivity in what we normally think of as an inert bit of cardboard. Today we don’t think of cereal boxes — or boxes of any sort — as imbued with ‘smarts’. But, with things getting smaller and cheaper you can imagine that someday someone will patent smart cardboard, if they haven’t already.

Third, and most notably in this scene, the interaction doesn’t stop as it is meant to. Andreton/Cruise is quickly driven to frustration when Pine & Oats continue their annoying kids song and dance. He winds up and dispatches the box across the room and it goes crashing into some dishes.

I find this moment the most revealing and with a higher degree of ‘ reality effect ‘ precisely because it provides evidence that even (or especially) in the future technology mostly doesn’t function as advertised.

This ‘broken tech moment’ works well because the entire audience will resonate with the experience of frustrating failures of this sort. There’s never the right dongle. The system needs updated firmware just when you want to use it and, then, when you do the update it stops connecting to something else. The ‘E’ key sticks. The WiFi signal sucks. The disk drive makes a clacking noise.

Etcetera.

Pine & Oats is a particularly strong proxy for this kind of frustration, especially because they seem to be mocking Anderton at his most vulnerable state.

What Pine & Oats have implied to us is that, in the future, we still eat breakfast. We’re still persuaded by little cartoon-y brand figures. And in the future we still get depressed and we still emotionally eat. Also, we still get frustrated and we still throw things in our frustration.

It all sounds so familiar, this future. Which makes it a brilliant place to study in order to understand our own condition, today.

Two — Implications, Not Prediction

The genius of telling a story about the future through a box of breakfast cereal is this: it invites us to ponder the future indirectly, humbly. It’s not dictating the terms, but leading us to discover our own insights using our own understanding and experiences. (Including, importantly, our frustration with it even when we’re not depressed nor drug-addled. Admit it — you’ve wanted to throw things at the interactive ads that pop up all over your web browser.)

Pine & Oats is a vision of the future from a more modest place than those big, all-encompassing “Vision of the Future” or yearly issues of trade magazines that claim to predict the future. Rather than a prediction, Pine & Oats exudes implications, representing some characteristics about the future, prompting us to fill in the gaps, ask questions, begin a dialog. This is much better and much more engaging than to be told explicitly a prediction. It also has a kind of modest tangibility to it — a box rather than an abstract painting of some utopian landscape or dystopian apocolyse — and is embedded in a narrative that makes it memorable and a thing experienced, rather than a bar chart, graph of trends, or even written out as a story.

Three — Cricket Crunch®

My friend Nick did a box of cereal from the future, but it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg. Or, it sorta wasn’t. It was for a teeny-tiny film he made that you can catch over at Hundred Pixel.

Nick was doing a bit of a Design Fiction exercise, curious about how one could imbue a box of breakfast cereal with evidence and clues about a future in which a breakfast diet consisting of insect flour protein is as ordinary as today’s breakfast ritual of mini marshmallows floating in sugary milk with frosted wheat flakes. Or..whatever your preferred breakfast cereal might be.

There are a few things going on here.

First, of course, is the insect flour as a protein. That’s a good conversation starter. What’s that mean? For some reason or sequence of events, or changes in attitudes and accepted norms, insects are now a source of protein you might find in a mass-market breakfast cereal. No more bacon and sausage? No more pigs? No more killing pigs so possibly now there are regular cullings of pigs no one planned things out and now they’ve over-populated and meandering the streets like pigeons and feral cats? This little tendril of a future sounds like it might be a bit wild, conflicted, and as poorly managed as the urban deer in New Jersey.

Going on, there seems to be some kind of emissive digital LED system you’re meant to scan.

And, look! It’s verified and sanctified by the fine people at..errrgghhnooo..Monsanto? What’s going on with that? Are these GMO insects? Patented crickets? Let’s talk about that and why that might be, and how people in the future might react to this in the Cricket Crunch® future. I wonder if there are genuine, old-fashioned, wild-caught “organic” insect protein breakfast cereals in some alternative food markets?

And, hold on — are these things still called “breakfast cereal” if the main ingredient is no longer a cereal? Oh — check it out..it’s referred to as a cereal substitute..and approved by the USAFB which, if you ask Nick-in-his-future, is the US Artificial Food Board. And Cricket Crunch® (or maybe the insect flour it’s made from) is a product of Korea. Notably it is not a specific Korea like the one South of the DMZ..so I wonder what may be going on in the future on that fractious peninsula. Imagining and discussing that particular refraction from the Cricket Crunch® future would be super interesting.

This is all good fun, and meant to note the various ways in which the box of cereal can tell a bigger story — or suggest and provide insights into what might be going on in the world it comes from. But, I have to emphasize — these are not predictions. Really they’re meant to be conversation starters. They can be discussed and debated but to deny them as wrong, or accept them as inevitable and definite is to miss the point of Design Fiction entirely. Keep that in mind.

Four: The Design Fiction Archetype

These use of the box of cereal is what we refer to as a Design Fiction Archetype. Archetypes are containers that hold and imply the future imaginary. A box of cereal is an archetype. An instruction manual from the future is an archetype. A marketing campaign, annual report, Ikea product catalog, opinion article from a newspaper, an unboxing video, a quick start guide, a billboard advertisement. And so on. These are all archetypes.

Here’s how I think of the archetype: Imagine a time-traveling anthropologist who is able to go to the future..sorta. They can reach into that future and see little bits and pieces and maybe blindly grab some things and bring them back. But it’s all a bit of a crap shoot because you don’t get to see the whole picture because you’re only humble human and you’re time traveling contrivance is a bit wonky and looks like a 1950s era clothes washer that rumbles and rocks like its going to break apart and has a bad leak and is in need of constant repair. This is us. We are as good as a 1950s era clothes washer in need of constant repair when it comes to making sense of what’s next. You don’t know all of the future. No one does. You just get to see partially obscure bits and pieces that are like clues left behind from a mysterious event — maybe a bank robbery or car accident. You have to piece it together and make some meaning out of it, holding on to your humility at the same time.

Our anthropologist reaches an arm into their wobbily wonky washing machine time portal contrivance and grabs into the future. What they pull back reveals all sorts of normal, ordinary, everyday stuff because, after all, we’re reaching into normal life. Nowhere fancy. And if you think about it, most all of the world is quite wonderfully banal, after all. We get things that people have lying about. Or something that got dropped on the sidewalk, or pinned up on a job board. Maybe a discarded HyperLoop ticket stub or one of those throw-away real estate newspapers that you can get for free from a box on the sidewalk. Every once and again you might pick the pocket of someone fancy and elite and find a weird and newfangled communication device or some odd form of currency — but for the most part, chances are you’ll pick up something strange but ordinary from the 99.99% of us.

We may reach in and pull out a ketchup bottle of some description with a curious brand logo and definitely some intriguing nutritional labels indicating new manufacturing processes — definitely some weird ingredients and why is it manufactured in a micro-gravity facility, anyway?

Maybe we get a tattered instruction manual that seems to be for a..well..not quite sure yet, but it looks like some kind of collaboration between N’Espresso and Facebook? Let’s put that to the side for the moment.

We have what seems to be an issue of Harvard Business Review with a cover story about a proprietary AI that trained as a GAN at The Bezos Institute and now calls itself @Midge. It appears to be celebrated as the CEO of the Year. That’s weird. Have to ponder that for awhile.

Oh. Look here. Next to that HBR is an issue of Fast Company with the headline, “80 Over 80”. Interesting. An 83 year old CTO at Apple named Dr. Adriana Howard Spence. I wonder what that’s all about.

Here’s something that looks like a newfangled USB connector with a few other types of other older connectors coming out of it. (Fun! A dongle from the future where we still haven’t sorted out connecting one thing to another!)

You get the idea. All of these artifacts brought back from some near future are like forensic evidence. The job here is to imply possibilities and provide a space and opportunity for discussion, debate, consideration, reflection more so than dogmatic predictions.

Five: The Object of Design Fiction — Discover Rather Than Predict

What is the object of all this?

Simply stated, the objects of Design Fiction is to discover relevant futures rather than make big predictions. Design Fiction allows you to be a modest witness to a possible future and interpret the multiple simultaneous possibilities, their consequences, and the kinds of events that might lead to these futures.

Second is the conversations that fill the world out — the mythopoesis. This is really key. Engaging all relevant stakeholders and other interested parties to discuss, describe and explain what the archetype seems to be ‘saying’. The mythopoesis isn’t a conclusion, it’s an act or a process. Even at the end of the exercise what you’re left with are artifacts as reminders. For example, a cereal box that stands in as a reminder of the conversations you had and the implications you discerned around shifts in food culture and norms, techno-agriculture, political-economy, interactive technology, ad-tech and much more. Having things like a cereal box as one of the outputs of a Design Fiction workshop is a win.

In my experience, going through this kind of exercise is a really satisfying, engaged, reflective, and fun approach to thinking about the future that also leaves you with a physical reminder of the activity. I’ve found it to be way better than a PowerPoint vision of the future, or photos of a ton of illegible post-it notes left on a white board after a brainstorming session.

Stay tuned. There’s more more to come.

Be well. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

Julian

Originally published at https://buttondown.email.

Founder of Near Future Laboratory & OMATA. Venice Beach, California. Does Design-Engineering for More Habitable Futures. omata.com nearfuturelaboratory.com