3 July 2003 Welcome - Charles - Thoughts - Imagineering

Imagination is a wonderful thing. It enables us to develop, to grow, to solve problems, to survive. We need, perhaps, to be more aware of its key role in our activities. We also need to be more aware of how it can be used deliberately to harness us to achieve someone else's purpose, a technique I call imagineering. And a very powerful technique it is, too.

Landing a man on the moon was achieved by a carefully constructed rocket? No, by a carefully imagineered belief that it could and should be done. A politician seeded a nation's imagination with an idea, and the deed grew from it. Technically it was an amazing achievement. Also wasteful and pointless in many ways. But its social effect was dramatic. Now the idea of going to other planets was not new. Science fiction was perhaps enjoying its finest hour (subsequently turning into science fantasy). Space travel was something many people could imagine. What then was different when the politician spoke? He caused the nation to imagine that they themselves, rather than their children, could actually succeed. So they did.

That current socio-technical phenomenon, the rise and rise of the mobile phone, is another example. It almost appears that half the population suffers from earache because so many spend so much time with one hand held against the sides of their faces. Vast numbers of people walk around apparently talking to those hands, ignoring other people around them. How much of this is caused by their desire to communicate with someone distant, and how much is caused by "I've got it so I might as well use it" thinking? Frankly I think the latter. They wanted to have the phone. Using it justifies their having it. OK, it can be a useful device, but not that useful. So why has that technology become so pervasive? I blame Star Trek. It planted the vision of a small hand held communication device. This was realised first by CB radios, and then the more civilised and usable mobile phone. I find it interesting to see the drive towards hands-free and wearable phones rather like the communication badges in later series of Star Trek... (This never caught on with the plain old telephones, even though the technology was there.) As for the desire to have the phone do more, compare the Star Trek tricorder with the information gathering power of a web connected "mobile". Don't forget the built in cameras! There is also a strange increase in the number of companies offering hand held remote temperature sensors as well. Watch that space.

Selling, be it wares or wars, first engages the imagination (even if it is only the imagined relief of getting rid of the salesman by buying something!) Selling is often concerned with moving a product that is not needed. If someone needs something and can afford it, they buy it; they do not need to have it sold to them. Other times it is concerned with one of several products that would do the same thing. In this case, selling involves causing someone to imagine that one version of product is better than another. This is usually achieved by imagined capability rather than real difference. Cars, for example, are usually sold by associating a particular brand or model with something that is not intrinsic to the product - looking good, sexy, stylish, powerful etc. all those puddle-jumpers are really pretty much the same. The approach is particularly suited to insurance policies. After all, it is what you can be induced to imagine might happen that will cause you to buy insurance. Hard facts rarely do the job.

People create what they can imagine; no imagination means no new methods, systems, devices, art. Seeing results makes it easy to imagine bigger and better; build a bridge that doesn't fall down and we immediately imagine building a bigger one. If it falls down we imagine building a better one, one that won't fall down. Now obviously this argument applies to those who are designers and planners, politicians, artists: those who work "creatively". But the labourer and the manager both do a better job if they can properly apply imagination. Imagining the finished product, the efficient workforce, or even how they will spend their wages.

Considering the effect of imagineering on research and development suggests that our efforts to progress are leading us along a one way path. As each development comes along it causes us to imagine the next, and the next. Very rarely will our economic systems allow us to backtrack and follow a different path. So we go where our imagination leads - or where we are imagineered to go by others.

If we look a little deeper though, we find imagineering at work in other ways. When I was a lad, boys wanted to grow up to drive engines, race cars, or perhaps be firemen or builders - whatever had grabbed our imaginations. (Likewise the girls, I suppose...) But things changed. Our imaginations have been fed a different diet for many years. One of the most significant changes I think is that we now propagate the idea of not working, but still having money to spend and endless time to apply to our own private activities. No one encourages children to imagine working anymore. So they don't want to. Now this is a serious social change and very few people realise it has happened. OK, so television is not as good as it used to be (the stories are not as real) and films miss out on the detail that made them believable. But they are so much more exciting that we do not care. Let's have more! And hold that boring old stuff. These media are the fuel for most people's imaginations in the "western world"

Another place or another time would see imaginations fed by real teaching, real example, stories with an understandable moral, stories that evolved over generations to explain and make memorable histories, cultures, traditions and life goals. Parents would pass on their skills, a little capital and a direction on how to improve the life around them in some way. They would inspire the younger ones to try something new. Not too new, not too unlikely to fail. Something that did not take a lot of imagination, just a bit. ocassionally there would be a big jump. Someone would imagine something outlandish. It might work. It might not. Once in a while it was worth the risk, while normal social and cultural momentum was there to pick up the pieces if it failed. But when many start taking that sort of risk, society suffers. The real cost is usually deferred to a future generation (who won't want to pay it either). We live on credit, on time and particularly resources stolen from the next generation.

I end up thinking that any responsible government should embrace a moderate censorship - not of subject or content (as censorship generally understood), but degree. When many people are having problems caused by their overspending (on non essential things) then a government should act to reduce the pressure to take out a loan for that holiday, for that new car, for that home extension. When the populace is starting to weigh heavy in the obesity tables, continuing selling of junk food should be deemed inappropriate and then controlled. When many thousands of people are injured or killed by speeding motorists every year, it is obvious to me that the cars/fast/feel-good linkage should be broken and people protected from this pervasive imagineering. But no one yet seems to be able to imagine a government that can be controlled by and yet be in control of the people. The nearest we get to it is democracy, and that is not very near at all.


For another viewpoint on the imagineered space travel objective, see John Shelper's note.

For a report on how the mobile phone has taken on a significant social function and more, see the Social Issues Research Centre's report Evolution, Alienation and Gossip.

A web site called RACprops provides a closer look at the Star Trek communicator... while some other "science" from the series is considered in a page authored by David Allen Batchelor at a NASA site.

I am aware that others have used the term imagineering in other ways, even including it in company names etc. (try entering imagineering into any web search engine). Usually it seems to be related to the engineering of images, not imaginations. I would not be surprised to find someone has registered the word as a trademark. But then I would not be surprised to find someone has registered the word trademark as a trademark. Perhaps my next "thought" will be about the uncommonness of common-sense, and the commonness of our need for it...