Various sensors worn on different body parts. Multiple tracking systems, different data produced.

Weekly digital lexicon #2

Zykluserkennungssoftware, die: German word "drive cycle recognition" software, a term used in a comment seen on Spiegel Online... that refers to software used to pass pollution tests (🚗💨)… modified by VW (so that they work only during tests).

AI trainer : a new job profile that consists in supervising/train computer programs: "A team of 'AI trainers' works with the program, and if there’s a request that M doesn’t understand the trainers take over. M then learns from what the human trainer does, and can use that technique with later requests." (seen here, thanks Fabien Girardin)

Plogging : the transposition of the (we)blogging logic to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter (which may allow longer posts), seen in this article (merci Virginie Bejot)

开挂 (abbreviation of 开外挂 "kai1 gua4") : a Chinese term used to express disbelief or that something has been enhance/forged (e.g. a Photoshopped image), and which originally refers to "the act of running an illegal plug-in on a game, either for practical usability purposes (translating an interface into Chinese) or to cheat (faking in-game presence to accumulate more virtual currency, or even packet modification to make a character move faster in an online game)" (Source: BoingBoing)

Hunting for urban electricity


Seen in Paris few weeks ago, a private car using the Autolib infrastructure to power up its batteries.

Why do I blog this? The need to recharge electrical objects – ranging from smartphones to cars – is more and more prevalent... and lead to such kind of behavior... reminding me of people looking for power plugs in trains (obviously toilets can help here) or in weird urban places (such as the outlets made available for farmers market owners). 

Design fiction, “anticipatory ethnography” and “ethnographies of the possible”

My interest in design fiction has always been related to my ethnographic practice (see for instance this piece about it) which is why I find it interesting to run into these two notions :

"Ethnographies of the possible", coined by Joachim Halse (2013):

"are a way of materializing ideas, concerns and speculations through committed ethnographic attention to the people potentially affected by them. It is about crafting accounts that link the imagination to its material forms. And it is about creating artifacts that allow participants to revitalize their pasts, reflect upon the present, and extrapolate into possible futures. These ambitions lie at the borderland between design and anthropology. For designers involved in this type of process, it is a new challenge to craft not beautiful and convincing artifacts, but evocative and open-ended materials for further experimentation in collaboration with non-designers. For anthropologists, it is a new challenge to creatively set the scene for a distorted here and now with a particular direction as a first, but important step toward exploring particular imaginative horizons in concrete ways."

Halse, J. (2013). "Ethnographies of the possible", in Gunn, W., Otto, T. & Smith, R.C. (eds). Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Bloomsbury, pp. 180-196.

"Anticipatory ethnography", proposed by Lindley and Sharma:

"Anticipatory ethnography suggests that the properties of the traditional inputs to design ethnography (situated observations) are analogous with the ‘value adding’ element of design fictions (diegetic prototypes). [...] Assuming that these suppositions are correct, then we can infer that combining the exploratory and temporally independent techniques of design fiction, may allow design ethnography to glimpse the future. Conversely, design ethnography’s established tools for sense making and analysis can be applied to explorations in design fiction. Can anticipatory ethnography lend speculative, the gravitas of hindsight?"

Lindley, J. & Sharma, D. (2014). An Ethnography of the Future. Paper presented at ‘Strangers in Strange Lands’ – An anthropology and science fiction symposium hosted by the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Why do I blog this? These definitions echo with my own research interests. More specifically, a project like Curious Rituals is based on a dual movement : a field research phase that aimed at designing a fictional representation of everyday gestures with digital technologies. To some extent, it is close to the two concepts defined above... and I see design fiction as a sort of "downstream user research" approach to test scenarios about the future... for instance by running focus groups with users and project stakeholders, generating a debate about pieces of technologies by taking concrete instances/scenarios (videos, catalogues, user manuals, etc.).

These definition also reminded me of Laura Forlano's text on Ethnography Matters. Called "Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?", it dealt with similar issues and ended up with this insightful remark:

"As ethnographers, it is not enough to describe social reality, to end a project when the last transcripts and field notes have been analyzed and written up. We must find new ways to engage and collaborate with our subjects (both human and nonhuman). We need better ways of turning our descriptive, analytical accounts into those that are prescriptive, and which have greater import in society and policy. We may do this by inhabiting narratives, generating artifacts to think with and engaging more explicitly with the people formerly known as our “informants” as well as with the public at large."

Weekly lexicon

(I use to run a daily idiom thing on twitter few years ago, never had the time to continue, but I guess a weekly lexicon is easier to maintain)

Speakularity (spotted on Nautilus) : a word proposed by journalist Matt Thompson and that corresponds to the transition between a society in which "the default expectation for recorded speech will be that it’s searchable and readable, nearly in the instant." (while the default nowadays is that it's not)

Sega-core (found in Killscreen) : sub-genre of chiptune music, produced by machines with 16-bits processors (Sega Genesis in particular)

Stratocaching : evolution of geoaching (a game in which participants use a GPS receiver or mobile device to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches) with flying objects (balloons, flying capsules, etc.) dropped to earth from the sky.

Fork bomb (also called rabbit virus, or wabbit) : a denial-of-service attack wherein a process continually replicates itself to deplete available system resources, causing resource starvation and slowing or crashing the system. 

The Future Mundane at dConstruct

Last week I had the good fortune to speak at the dConstruct conference in Brighton, UK. I talked about the Future Mundane, and whilst there’s no video feed, I’ve pulled together my slides and the audio for you here. Enjoy.

Signage for invisible UI

InvisibleUI2 InvisibleUI1

Why do I blog this? Seen in the Arlanda Express in Stockholm this week, this intriguing signage is meant for an invisible interface, the (standard) automatic door which always leads perplexed user to wonder how to open it. Although I like the icons here, I had to help two persons during the trip to downtown.

Wearable computing

tshirt tshirt2

The kind of wearable computing you find at the market in Geneva. It's been a while these sound-activated t-shirts exist and I find it fascinating to see them around in 2015. Future mundane at its best here.

On Cuban repair cultures

Here’s a list of services offered in an AC-intense mobile phone repair shop in Trinidad (Cuba): "desbloqueo decodificatión y liberación de celulares, código de usuario, cambio de idioma, cambio de frecuencia, reparación de software (flasheo), reparación de celulares Chinos, reparaciones generales de hardware (display, flex, táctiles, bocinas, micrófonos, régiment de carga), eliminación de humedad a móviles, instalación de aplicaciones, actualización de sistema Android, actualización de sistema IOS, configuración del coreo nauta, información et asesoria gratuitas."

A rather broad and interesting inventory. Some of the services can generally be fond in this type of shop ((I regularly visit these stores while traveling here and there )); unlocking the SIM card and change components (speaker, microphone ...) in particular. I also understood "eliminación of humedad has móviles" is not related to the climatic constraints of moisture as one might think, but rather to the fact that many people, there as elsewhere, seems to drop the phone in the water 📱💦. The other services are less common : assistance with phone configuration (language, messaging software, update OS) or app installation. The precision concerning the Chinese mobile phone repair is obviously intriguing too.

Basically, this type of store is not very different from those I have just a few meters from my home in Geneva. However, Cuba has many other shop/counters/garage/apartment????) offering repair services for all kinds of other artifacts : for automobiles of course (from 1951 Plymouth to the latest Audi), electro-mechanical watch/clock, garden and kitchen hardware, bikes, etc.

Plastic and metal parts sold on the street in Trinidad.

Plastic and metal parts sold on the street in Trinidad.

Electronic shop in Viñales.

Electronic shop in Viñales.

Given the difficulty to acquire property on the island, this is not hardly a surprise, but it reflects a important“repair culture". However, unlike many titles of articles or reference guide saying that a visit to Cuba is a “frozen in time", it is a lively present. With, one the one hand, a variety of technical objects both old and new, not necrotic at all. And, on the other hand, altered artifacts, with more or less recent parts. The best example being the bicitaxi (bicycle taxi) that are certainly rudimentary at first but whose sound consists bluetooth speakers hanging on the ceiling (cardboard, metal or wood) and controlled by a smartphone (iPhone or Android ). Similarly, American cars are certainly old, but the driver may well have a bluetooth headset for phone calls, and a USB key inserted into car stereos with tons of mp3s collected in in music stores delivering content more or less fresh downloaded from the Internet (and potentially via the Paquete Semanal). The government also contribue to this, as attested by the Soviet-like toll arches on Havana highways ... on which fixed cameras read the registration plates (according to our taxi driver) in a very contemporary robot world-readable fashion. This type of arrangement is also not limited only to hardware tinkering, it is found in fact in the service of such design… with Airbnb being available for in some casa particulares (guest capita ) with a payment made through an intermediary in an agency in Miami.

A repairman in Trinidad.

A repairman in Trinidad.

Another consequence of this culture of DIY also concerns the recycling of objects, materials and spare parts from multiple devices. Some examples encountered : along with the inevitable mention of 1950s US cars, I ran across a lawn mower made up of a screw motor metal rods and a small motorcycle tank, a leaf blower assembled with a vacuum cleaner motor mounted on a leather harness and a North American switch, a Lada VAZ-2101 engine placed in the hood of a 1957 Dodge, etc. This kind of bricolage is also described by the anthropologist Sarah Hill in a fascinating article titled "Recycling History and the Never-Ending Cuban Life of Things" ... who goes into more detail on what I describe here. Without idealizing these practices, it would be intriguing to compare this practices with other recycling and repair cultures including Gambiarra described Felipe Fonseca in Brazil.

Engine from a taxi car in Habana.

Engine from a taxi car in Habana.

Without offering the same conditions (political, social, technological and other) that the Western world, the island is far from being “frozen in the past” as I’ve seen written here and there. And one can also wonder wether this type of lively hybridization cannot be also considered as our future. It seems reasonable to think that a culture of recycling or DIY could become widespread in the Western world due to the scarcity multiple commodities / rare metals.

Our Approach of Design Fiction

One of our objectives at Near Future Laboratory is to help carry Design Fiction to maturity and any interrogation or critique from the public is a source of reflection and an opportunity for describing our understanding as to what Design Fiction is, how it’s best practiced, and in what ways it can evolve.

We frequently receive requests from journalists, students, fellow practitioners and clients to describe Design Fiction and shed some light on our approach as a micro-multinational company. All the questions are legitimate as Design Fiction was, not a long time ago, still an emerging practice. We have gathered here a potpourri of the recent recurrent questions. Many thanks to their authors for their curiosity.

This is the Q&A on our approach of Design Fiction as of Summer 2015.

We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds

Q — You are working on future exploration. How is speculation incorporated in your work?

NFL — At The Near Future Laboratory, three of us have a background in academic research, and one in industrial design, all with a proven experience of multi/inter/un-disciplinary work. We are interested in foresight; futures research and in this idea that we can’t predict, but anticipate and speculate on near future worlds. We grew interest in design and how designers work, and think there is a strong potential in connecting between these two fields, future and design. This appeared particularly true with the recent increasing capacity to design, build and prototype tangible things fast and at low budget.

In 2009, we chose the notion of Design Fiction and began to develop it. We started to investigate how design can help to materialize and to make tangible scenarios about a near future by using very mundane artefacts that we can craft and design. We introduced and appropriated the term ‘diegetic prototypes’ to account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence. These technologies only exist in the fictional world — what film scholars call the diegesis — but they exist as fully functioning objects in that world. For instance, we produced catalogs, newspapers or user manuals from the future, which are objects that could be designed to exemplify and to materialize these scenarios about possible futures for clients as well as for our own investigations.

Today, for each project we engage with a growing list of Design Fiction archetypes (e.g. unboxing videos, user reviews), we test alternative approaches, draw their processes and debate the best practices of Design Fiction.

Somebody’s future is somebody else’s present. We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions.

Kourier phone

Q — What is the difference between your work at the Near Future Laboratory and that of other more traditional designers?

NFL — We are a bit peculiar in our studio structure. We are what you might call a ‘micro-multinational’ company with headquarters in Venice Beach, San Francisco, Geneva and Barcelona. We came together through our academic careers, but mostly driven through our curiosities about the emerging practices of a peculiarly transforming world — the networked world. As academics, we were trained to question and interrogate emerging social, technological, cultural practices that we observed — and there were plenty of weird emerging social practices around the first, second and third dot-com events. Those observations led us to consider implications and consequences, and develop our own set of techniques for understanding and then communicating our insights.

The Near Future Laboratory crew

We are particularly attentive to “weak signals” of the everyday life in form of behaviors, new rituals and frictions. For instance in TBD Catalog we depict a fantastic near future translated into its inevitably fraught, low-battery, poor reception, broken firmware, normal, ordinary, everyday sensibilities. It is neither boom, nor bust. It is just the near future as if it was now.


We have largely eschewed the traditional academic channels of research papers, academic conference talks and the like. Producing evocative little pamphlets, fictional product catalogs, software that is quite counter to prevailing intuition about what software should be, little hardware devices that are designed to be used less rather than more — these are the kinds of provocations we like to produce. Not academic papers or typical research studies. We found it more engaging and more to our own individual sensibilities to produce material that was available to larger, more public audiences. We also have a strong instinct towards making things — props, prototypes, objects, software, devices, films — that we felt told stories about implications of modern society more effectively than pure academic prose.

Q — Which are the steps of the process of thinking and designing a new and still unknown product?

NFL — Depending on projects and client, the starting point of a Design Fiction can be a new technology (e.g. self-driving cars), evidences of a practice (e.g. gestural interaction with technology), a vision described in a few sentences (e.g. the bank of the future), a full investigation (e.g. the future of water) or a whole field (e.g. big data in sport). Alternatively, we developed our own Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit  to help define the core elements of a designed product.


Then we run materialization of conversations amongst a small group often composed of a mix of visual/industrial/product designers, makers, researchers, curators, creatives, engineers and writers. Together we express the pragmatic concerns, ambitions, fears, everyday needs and wishes of the inhabitants of some envisioned near future. Also, we consider the evolution of the ways and means of production of the near future, as well as shifts in the dynamics of creativity, law, norms, economic models, aesthetic, social and personal values and incumbent measures of cultural achievement.  We then turn talk into deliberate actions and artifacts (i.e. “diegetic prototypes”), that is material from a near future represented as fully functioning objects in that world: a product catalogue, a manual, an app, a Kickstarter, a magazine, advertisement, popular book review or cover jacket, news broadcast, talk show interview, unboxing video, medical prescription, a video showing a days in the life of a particular character, etc.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions.

Q — What is the aim of designing products that do not really exist? Or asked differently, how do you know that the future will be approximately like the one you describe?

NFL — Design Fiction doesn’t so much “predict” the future. It is a way to consider the future differently; a way to tell stories about alternatives and unexpected trajectories; a way to discuss a different kind of future than the typical bifurcation into utopian and dystopian.

In Design Fiction we make implications without making predictions. We propose and build elements of a possible future without being too precious or detailed about them. Our aim is to spark conversations about the near future, check the sanity of visions and uncover hidden perspectives. Our work serves to design-develop prototypes and shape embryonic concepts in order to discard them, make them better, or reconsider what we may take for granted today.

For instance in our Pilot Helios Quick Start Guide, we consider what would be the experience of a self-driving car owner: when driving, no driving, when using the car in an automatic mode or not. We listed the main issues about how to adapt to that, the problem that may appear, the kind of regulation likely to be adopted, etc. Since we worked with a good group of 15 designers from various part of the world to do that, the answers were quite broad and enabled us to embrace a wide range of options that describe how such service may come to be.

The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories


Q — In your Design Fictions, do you also take into account the technical characteristics of the products and services?

NFL — With our engineering backgrounds, we are fairly aware of the technical features of a device and the technologies that lay beneath them. However, technical constraints do not lead to fertile creative process and discussions. We do not stop to think that — because something is not technologically possible or too expensive today — it should be removed from consideration. What if there is a breakthrough or what is there are legal, social, ethical or economic changes that make a certain limitation become possible? We want our clients or the public in general to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible and focus on the implications for the company, a product, its customers and society in general, because our techno-cultural-political world is weird.

Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life and the standard objects or services that might fill possible futures.


Q — What is your interest in using Design Fiction methods when it comes to deal with possible futures?

NFL — We do not position ourselves as “optimists” or “pessimists” when it comes to technological evolutions. We are not exuberant about the future of 3D printing, nor Google-powered autonomous vehicles. At the same time, we aren’t apocalyptics who believe Algorithms will lead us to Terminator-like smoldering ruin. We are not in the business of making predictions — rather, we make multiple propositions meant to lead to productive conversations about what’s next. Creating representations of our perspectives in material form produces these conversations and discussions. This is our goal.

To contrast with other similar design approaches, we think Design Fiction is a bit different from critical design, which is a bit more abstract and theoretical compared to our own interest in design happening outside of galleries or museums. Design Fiction is about exploring a future mundane. It tackles a future-oriented problem or opportunity with an everyday-object to address it to anyone who could be concerned in few years.

In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe that the 5-10-30 years timeline is no longer useful today

The old models of scenario planning from the mid-century and newer models referred to as design research from the late 20th century considered to future to be 5-10-30 years forward. In many cases, time horizons of innovation have shorten and we believe this timeline is no longer useful today. The effects of the network, the ways and pace by which ideas circulate, the availability of exceptional scales of funding and resources for even the craziest of ideas by very anxious, eager, intrepid entrepreneurs, the importance of “fixing” the world’s problems much quicker than 10 years — all of these indicate that we need a new set of tools to develop solutions to our ideas that don’t work at the old-fashioned scales of large governments and world organizations. We need tools, approaches and ways of thinking that are based on the pace of the modern human creative apparatus, that can find possibilities in unexpected places that are not known in advance. This is what Design Fiction is able to do and why it is an important creative design tool.

That being said, our interest is not to focus on abstract and theoretical perspectives, but rather to make people conscious about certain changes and opportunities. They can be technological, social or political. This goal makes us think about the right artifact or the right format to start a discussion with people about these stakes and uncover hidden perspectives. When we say people, we mean anybody, not necessarily specialists. Hence, we are interested in very mundane and banal type of artifacts to create this discussion. It’s not necessarily about making people believe that these things have already happened in reality, with a fictional product for example, but to raise awareness that there are weird possibilities and changes going on.

Unlike other foresight studies which remain generally quite polished and theoretical, we are less formal in our approach. We do not invest too much time in measuring and analyzing the macro variables of change, the “big shifts” or “large crisis”. We are influenced by design and have a more implicit way of operating that starts with finding the appropriate representations of a possible future. Our approach of Design Fiction is a way to perform “micro” future studies that pays particular attention on the everyday life (e.g. the rituals, the behaviors, the frictions), its short term evolutions (3-5 years) and the standard objects or services that might fill these possible futures. The Design Fictions act as a totem for discussion and evaluation of changes that could bend visions and trajectories. This emphasis on the relation of individuals with technology contrasts with classical future scenarios that analyze the world at longer terms and a large range of variables.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition.




Q — You make your work public in museums, galleries, magazines and your shop, but is Design Fiction useful for companies?

NFL — We divide our efforts between self-initiated projects that we make public and private consultancy for clients. Projects like TBD Catalog showcase the influence of designers, writers, researchers, entrepreneurs, artists and engineers in our approach of Design Fiction. Design Fiction demands creative skills as much as a capacity to understand and analyze the world, technologies, people and its evolutions. Companies approach us for our multi/inter/un-disciplinary points of view as well as our ability to propose potential near futures. Their requests rarely specifies a need for “Design Fiction”. Rather, the discussion with clients often from R&D, Innovation, or Marketing starts with more specific needs around the development of new products or services and strategic choices related to them.

Design Fiction is one approach among others, but its contribution focus on the near future and is tangible. For instance, instance of participating to workshops of multi-disciplinary experts with a powerpoint filled with ideas for a technology, we propose to create the user manual for the envisioned product or produce a video that showcases how an employee appropriates the technologies with its features and limitations. These artifacts are meant to materialize changes, opportunities and implication in the use of technologies. They particularly point out details in situations of use with the objective to avoid a “general discussion”. For instance in our Quick Start Guide project, the outcome of that Design Fiction is not the guide per se. Rather the outcome is the discussions provoked by the many diverse “real” situations described in the guide and that highlight the challenges, the issues, the frictions and the necessity to think a service into its details.

For our clients a successful Design Fiction means that they can feel, touch and understand near future opportunities and with convincing material of potential changes of their customers, markets, technologies, or competition. For instance TBD Catalog is an alternative to traditional ways of imagining, constructing and discussing possible near futures. Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper or bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project, we wanted to present the results in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exist as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

The point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts

Q — In projects like TBD Catalog are the products already invented or did you thought about all of them? Where did you take the ideas from?

NFL — Ideas and concepts come from our research mixed with evidences, imagination and dialog between people of multiple disciplines and backgrounds. Because the future is unevenly distributed and somebody’s future is somebody else’s present it is common to stumble on some concepts that are already real products/services or Kickstarter projects. Our approach is then to consider what these objects, products or service might feel or look like in one, two or three iterations? Or how might people talk about them in the near future? We don’t actually care at all if our creative process comes up with some idea that someone else has already imagined, discussed, built or sketched. The point is not to be “the first” — the point is to be creative, to discuss, to debate and produce artifacts.

Q — Which kind of improvement could be brought to your approach of Design Fiction? For instance, do you look at methods and tools borrowed from ethnography?

NFL — In projects like Curious Rituals, we employed our expertise in ethnography particularly to study and understand people’s behavior, people’s habits and their rituals, with technologies . So far we have not used ethnographic methods after the production of a Design Fiction, but mostly before as a way to feed the design process. However, there is surely something interesting to think about, in terms of getting back to the people who shaped our perspective about the future and to explain what we did with all their insights. There is also room for exploration on that side.

Copyright © 2015 Near Future Laboratory