The Masked: A Speculative World Inspired by the Rise of Social Media
After watching Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma, it made me wonder–what would our world look like if it became a reality? What kind of resistance would we get, what kind of possible utopian visions could this world generate? With all these questions, what better way to explore these ideas than through building an entire world with speculative design?
What the Heck is Worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is a daunting word. Every time I tell a friend that I’m “worldbuilding,” they look at me with utter perplexity. I can’t help but laugh a little as I recall their reactions.
“You’re building an entire world?”
“WoRlDBuiLDinG? What is that?”
“Oh, I see… but I don’t see.”
I gotta admit, as I’ve navigated articles and videos on worldbuilding myself, it didn’t really click until I started just “doing it” myself. It’s abstract, it’s holistic, and cyclical in nature. Inspired by the methods of British designer, Alex McDowell, worldbuilding is at the very core, an exploration of the question, “What if, Why not?”
Rather than exploring an idea from one perspective, worldbuilding takes that and expands a narrative into a dynamic, interconnected world. Worldbuilding can be used for game design, building the narrative worlds of novels, films, and more. In our case, we’re using worldbuilding as a means to explore and envision an alternate future, while generating possible solutions to guide our present closer to that ideal vision we hope to have.
Envisioning “What Could Be”
To get into this mode of thinking, it was helpful to explore a hypothetical writing prompt in thinking about a possible future like The Social Dilemma.
Culturally organized, fictional world in which data mining, surveillance, capitalism, machine learning, AI, and social media companies continue to be unregulated and grow in power, eventually leading to the downfall of sovereign nations as we know them. 2051.
In your experience in the future world, what aspect of your world impacts you the most?
With this vision in mind, I went on to free-write for a quick 5 mins focusing on sensory ideas and imagery if I were to appear suddenly into a world like this 30 years from now.
This is a snippet of what I wrote:
The utter sensory chaos. Where am I, who am I now? The flashing lights, the honking of cars. And the smog so suffocatingly dense. People push past me skidding by on hovering scooters–chattering away to seemingly nothing. They don’t seem to care. Rather than the phones we fiddle with as we walk, they have floating screens in front of them.
Latest, greatest. New. Better. It never ends. Left and right–you see it all–discounts for the latest holographic glasses, subscriptions for all-year delivery, and there are cameras at the corner of nearly all buildings.
What are people wearing? Are those screens on their shoes?
After this exercise, I went on to write and just list themes and topics relating to this issue of technological monopolies and the commodification of information.
After this, I chose another topic and let myself think in a cause-and-effect method exploring how something can cause the rise of social media companies.
I chose the topic of how we can find comfort in distinction between machines and humans. So how does this lead to the rise of social media companies?
The unique essence of what makes us humans has a lot to do with our individuality. What makes us different from each other–what makes us humans? Is it our emotions, our consciousness?
In social media companies, we can see how our values, behaviors, and identity are used as a means of achieving their own motives for control, profit and shaping our societal landscape to align closer with their own values.
Whether it is our daily habits, relationships, or our personal interests, similar to how The Social Dilemma puts it–humans are unique in that we do have free will–yet simultaneously, we can be gradually conditioned into changing our behaviors based on how our beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our relationship with others is shaped by social media.
The value in our humanity is that we have unique desires and interests–yet we all have one common pursuit–happiness.
And our belief of what happiness means is shaped by what media produces. In this way, we are at the mercy of what they present to be solutions or steps in achieving that definition of happiness.
As we know, the uniqueness in humans is that we have diverse interests, and various behaviors and patterns. Though ultimately we have similar goals and desires, as well as collective physical and emotional needs.
And with the cognitive awareness of the way these systems work, we also have the means and power to redefine what happiness means to us.
Micro-kingdoms and Our Speculative World
As I delved deeper into visions of “what could be,” it was time to take it steps further by creating what authors of Speculative Everything, Dunne and Raby call, “micro-kingdoms, micro-states/nations.” By creating these little societies, they will serve as social, ideological, and economic models for the world we were trying to build. With these micro-kingdoms, we can see alternative structures within that world of the rise of social media and how different values and beliefs shape each community.
My team and I worked on elaborating on what our world might be based on an object first. This object prototype served as a way to bridge what themes and values our world would embody. After some brainstorming, I playfully suggested the idea of a mask–in reference to our pandemic-stricken world. Once we got into it, we realized the mask idea had a lot of potential in the way it erases one’s individuality, plays with the public vs. private self, and the way technology has allowed for us to create multiple personas of ourselves with social media.
Now, we got to the good stuff–asking the right questions to build our world.
We split our world into four sections–representing different ideals and based off geographical locations: Urban, Rural, Suburban, and my microkingdom–The Grid.
We really thought about why people in our world would be motivated to wear these masks. Was it due to fear? Why are they afraid? They want to hide their faces? Is it due to judgement? Surveillance of cameras, being tracked, personal information being sold and commodified? Do masks give people the power to control their private? Is this merely the illusion of agency?
In our world, we envisioned that technology has become so advanced that surveillance can track one’s face where companies use your data as currency. Or even once your face is tracked, others can create fake personas of you. We also explored how masks can symbolize class differences, race, and how they might be influenced by trends, or the idea of protection.
In other ways, the masks symbolize the way we place value on superficial numbers in our social media driven world. The way we look to followers, validation and statistics, as well as the idea of “cancel culture” where you lose your privileges in this world. People then wear these masks as a way to build a reputation they can present to the world–similar to the pressure our culture places upon us to uphold ideologies that society deems “acceptable, desirable and normal.”
My micro-kingdom is based on a neglected city area in Los Angeles. It was inspired a bit by the WATTS Project area as a resident claimed, “WATTS means We Are Taught to Survive.”
The Grid itself holds an oasis of electrical power, and preserved land with purification technology housing the wealthiest people and access to high-tech tourist entertainment/attractions. This preserved land allows for a more balanced climate, as opposed to the surrounding more slum-like areas–in which environmental conditions are hazardous and unsafe.
The population itself is diverse–with recent immigrants, displaced people, ethnic minorities, wealthy tech workers in the oasis, or even those feeling from troubled circumstances. The surrounding area has targets of crime, as well as issues of sanitation due to blocked infrastructure.
This is a prototype I drew of The Grid’s possible map and geographic arrangement. I highlight how transport works throughout the city, and how many of the hazardous zones host majority of residents. The concept of the mask determines which residents are allowed into the oasis and when.
Geographically, The Grid is invisible and overlooked. Drugs, alcohol and crime are rampant as the culture emphasized hedonistic tendencies as a means to escape the chaotic way of life. Technology and the pressure to hide one’s humanity and authenticity from others leads to a kind of shallow sense of self. As residents continue to deny their very human desires for truth and connection, the only way to express their humanity is what the society of The Grid deems acceptable–through entertainment, and for the sake of the economy through tourism.
These are some prototype sketches of how the masks might look. The Oasis of course has advanced models with the luxury of privacy, protection from environmental hazards, and can be charged up with solar energy. It is light weight, with not much external display of private data, so it allows for anonymity.
However, it is the most expensive and difficult to obtain unless you have connections in the oasis, work there, or can afford it. This speaks to the clash in class and socioeconomic levels and the way masks regulate privileges.
These masks are custom designed and custom fitted–owners can add extra features or edit what information is stored.
This modular mask model are those for outside the Oasis. It risks the exposure of one’s identity, is durable but can overheat, needs a battery, and bulky. The strap can symbolize the kind of constriction and trapped way of living outside of oasis with its cycle of hedonism and escapism. The mask displays private data but also is the only way of showing identification and verification to get work outside of the oasis.
It risks potential for exploitation, especially eye scans (surveillance) with the mesh material exposing eyes. Models can vary more in style, as individuality is a less controlled outside the Oasis.
Expanding on The Grid + Prototype
Building off that first stage as our group chose a single object to represent our world, we split off to choose another object to represent our micro-kingdoms.
This time, I worked on elaborating on different aspects of the world such as: Art & Architecture, Cultural Institutions, Customs/Lifestyle, Economy, Politics/Government, Materials and the Manufacturing Process for Technology.
My micro-kingdom embodied both elements from the Urban and Suburban communities with its values on productivity and appearance. I started with the architectural of the space and expanded on my map diagram of the Oasis dome being in the center.
The wealthy centered in the oasis highlights environmental abundance and balance in climate, conveying values of minimalism and erasure of individualism. The Oasis at its core believes individuality only causes chaos, and what one must strive for is a unified, clone-like society where needs and desires are regulated.
Using panels and solar energy is inspired by the idea of how the Oasis is one of the only locations in the Grid that receives adequate sunlight vs. the outer areas where smog and pollution block the sun from reaching buildings.
There’s a divide with advanced technologies with the Oasis and the more traditional or make-shift nature of those in the outer areas. In this way, it is also represented by varying architectural styles where buildings in the outer areas lack greenery and are often more enclosed. Materials also differ to shield citizens from environmental hazards vs. the more open areas of the Oasis conveying the luxury of healthy air conditions.
The culture of The Grid lies also in escapism as I mentioned before–the Oasis shuns individuality, while the outer areas become an outlet for those needs and wants. In this way, human desires become commodified and the way citizens provide value is through entertainment. Tech raves, all night bars, racing, are all a prevalent part of this culture.
Other manifestations of escapism involve the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality with how humans may project their ideal selves or more “unacceptable” human selves into cyber-technology.
Outside of the Oasis, there is definitely more individuality involved or allowed–however it is based on the condition that individual provides economic value. Other cultural distinctions in The Grid involve fashion, and tech shows–these attract tourists, while simultaneously allowing citizens to express parts of their humanity.
I was also exploring different terms of what the government might be like. There is a definite Plutocracy in how the Oasis governs or rules everything else in the surrounding area–controlling the privilege of other citizens or their access to resources.
Proof of Concept: Object Prototype
As I continued to build upon The Grid’s ideologies, and societal structure, I wanted to create a prototype of some kind of wearable technology as my representative object. My future steps involve using Adobe XD to build out a user flow or prototype of the user interface of how a projection of this technology might work.
My focus leaned towards creating a futuristic watch that projects people’s information and identification. It can store their “worth” or value based on data and personal information, followers, money, etc. In another way, this smart watch prototype touches on the way citizens engage in hedonistic activities, or ways of escape and how exchange or currency might work.
For example, people who engage in robot brawls place bets on who they think might win using the currency of their personal data (searches, memories, followers, purchases, habits, etc). This data that gets exchanged becomes free for use but also risks the individual becoming exploited or “cloned” where corporations or dark markets use personal data to create false personas.
With this object prototype of the smart watch, it would convey the way The Grid’s obsession with entertainment and escapism affect the individual. How citizens participate in brawls, races, bar activities will illuminate the way humans in this society sacrifice their personal information and sense of self for the sake of short-term pleasure. In another way, this prototype would be representative of the kind of cycle people in the Grid find themselves trapped in–chasing something they can never attain because it doesn’t really exist.
Having something on your wrist, like a watch–in itself is symbolic of how this society shackles its citizens to suppressing their sense of self for the sake of economic growth and a corrupt unbalanced society. With a watch also being an indicator of time, it is an object that represents what is lost and what can never be gained back–and the great lengths people go to as a means to maintain the illusion of power and control.