Design Fiction at 6th Annual Swiss Design Network Conference

Round Display

[[This just in. Sounds fun and curious. Almost makes me not loathe the academic conference context if only because the topic seems far enough beyond the typical that it may in fact suggest that there is an active imagination or two left in the tower.]]

Dear fellow design researchers.

The Academy of Art and Design FHNW in Basel and the Swiss Design Network are pleased to invite you to participate in the 6th Annual Swiss Design Network Conference in Basel, Switzerland, October 28-30, 2010. The SDN Conference belongs to the leading European design research conferences and brings together scholars, professionals and students who come from diverse backgrounds and share interests in design and design research. The 2010 conference theme addresses the topic of “negotiating futures. design fiction.” It builds on the assumption, that designers see the world not simply as it is, but rather as it could be. In this perspective, the world is a laboratory to explore the contingency of the existing and the thinking in options. Imaginations of the contra factual are a key source for the creation of alternative political, technological, social, or economic constellations of artefacts, interfaces, signs, actors, and spaces. At the same time, strategies of materialization are pivotal to shift the boundary between the fictional and the real and to finally bring possible new realities into being. The conference therewith addresses the question of how fictions are designed and how the multiplicity of possible new futures is negotiated and realized. Keynote speakers include James Auger, Julian Bleecker [[* note to self: write it this time; don’t rack a round and hope for the best *]], Ruth Durrer, Franz Liebl and Alexandra Midal.

Call for Papers

We invite you to present your research at the SDN Conference 2010. We are looking for high quality papers in the field of design research to be published in the conference proceedings. While the conference addresses all current areas of design research, we especially encourage the submission of work that addresses the main conference theme of “design fiction” and the respective empirical research, theories, methods, and educational work.

Deadline for the submission of abstracts is May 2, 2010, deadline for the submission of final papers is July 18, 2010. For more and updated information on the conference and on how to submit your work, please see the attached call for papers and visit the main conference website at

The Week Ending 032610

Saturday October 03, 16.10.59

Well, see there. The trouble with writing weeknotes at the beginning of the week following when I was supposed to write them is that I don’t easily recall what happened in the week in which the week’s notes refer. Damnit.

Let’s see: there was a small accumulation of more suggested films from the week during SXSW. Nathan Moody of has had a history in film production and vfx and the films he suggested came in, but were not viewed mostly because there’s quite a rucous about and a moment to watch a movie closely was ne’er to be found. I also got Kill Bill vol. 1 legitimate mostly because of some curious horseplay with intra and extra diegetic production games — music moving in and out from the score into the dialogue and back out again and such all. I’m in an accumulation phase as pertains my explorations of genre conventions in film that move props, prototypes, dialogue, sound in and out and beyond the 4th wall and so forth. This all a way to activate some of the ideas that David A. Kirby writes about in his work on the *diegetic prototype in science fiction film. (Kirby will be visiting the studio a week from today to talk about these sorts of things..and I want to be as literate as possible.)

I also got this somewhat deceptively named add-on to the wonderfully middling and important science fiction film *Surrogates, which I will have to write more about at some point. The add-on was a book that turns out to just be a more fancy edition of graphic novel called The Surrogates Operator’s Manual. I wanted something closer to the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual..but for these surrogate cyborgs. There is some curious design fiction going on in there — some product brochures and adverts from the near future. But, no operator’s manual in the more technical sense — like a service manual or warranty card or something. That would’ve been lovely. These technical manuals for things that don’t exist are another of the genre conventions that help kick speculation and provocation into high gear. Definitely another kind of prototyping — write your service manual to define the thing itself.

Speaking of Surrogates by *completely pre-ordained coincidence Mark Meadows and the lovely Amelie *happened to amble by the Friday evening with two six packs so, well — we got going on a wonderful discussion about material in Mark’s new book as well as the epic adventures on the boat, the Baja Bash and what happens when the head goes out. It was a perfect week’s end conversation and a chance to back fill on a few months of near radio silence. Mark was kind enough to drop off a draft of his book for me to poke and prod at — we’re tacking a similar course, clearly, at least as pertains the intermingling between science fiction and science fact, he with the more proto-cyborg material in particular and I think, as usual, my interest lies in the meta topic as to how fact and fiction swap properties in more general terms.

I wonder how much of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s participation in that film (he appears at the least in the opening credits, but I’ve heard word that he was a consultant on the film) would count as a science consultant in the same vein as Jack Horner in Jurassic Park and John Underkoffler in Minority Report. Perhaps Mark’s book will reveal some insights on this point.

I think that’s it for now.

Design Fiction Panel at SXSW 2010

Sunday March 14 21:20

That’ll be from the wonderfully understated Artz Rib House out on the periphery of the SXSW core. Well worth it.

An exceptionally short, late Friday dispatch just as a waypoint on the way to *then — the audio *podcast from the Design Fiction panel with Jennifer Leonard, Sascha Pohflepp, Jake Dunagan, Stuart Candy, Bruce Sterling and myself, she’s available now. As Bruce mentioned — it is missing something without the video, which will hopefully be available soon. In either or anycase — I can’t listen to myself speak, but I gleaned an additional crop of luscious insights from Jennifer and the fellas and dozzled in a glaze from Bruces flash-bangs. Giver a listen and let me know.

Continue reading Design Fiction Panel at SXSW 2010

Design Fiction Chronicles: The Dark Knight's Ubicomp Mobile Phone Sonar

Here’s that scene from The Dark Knight where Batman has secretly installed a surveillance system that traces the legal, moral and ethical contours iconic to ubiquitous computing networked devices of this sort. What’s going on — as explained in the short bit of dialog — is that all of the mobile phones used by all of Gotham’s citizens have been secretly connected to this rig that is able to produce sonar-like visualizations of their surroundings to such a level of resolution that one can *see and *hear everything. Batman is asking Lucius Fox / Morgan Freeman to man the rig and listen out for The Joker and direct Batman so he can capture him and end his felonious shenanigans. Lucius plays the moralist here, drawing issue to the fact that Batman would be invading people’s privacy and, moreover, misusing the system that Lucius constructed.

As pertains the Design Fiction motif, what I enjoy about this scene is how quickly it is able to center the pertinent extradiegetic debate on surveillance technologies. Whatever one feels about ubiquitously networked devices and their implications for issues such as the possibilities for over-arching surveillance, state control, and so on — this one scene and its spit of dialogue, together with a suggestive and fairly easily explained and dramatic apparatus — together all of this is able to summon forth the debate, frame its rough contours and open up a conversation. Nice stuff.

Listening Post

Parenthetically is this device shown above. Called, suggestively, Listening Post, one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a prototype of the surveillance device in The Dark Knight which it may be, or not, or may be both a *real prototype and a probe or a propmaster’s prototype for the film. Or something. In any case, it is a sculpture done by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. Listening Post “is an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read (or sung) by a voice synthesizer, and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens.”

It’s quite curious and depending on what is going on in the world — lovely to listen to. When I first saw it at The Whitney in New York City it was in February of 2003 very shortly after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster — and the tone of the snippets of chat room conversations were echoing the sentiments of that event. In a sense the device anticipates the aggregation of *chatter that comprises or can be cohered into *trends or *trending topics as the year of Twitter has made increasingly legible.

In any case, the similarity of these two devices — The Dark Knight apparatus and Hansen and Rubin’s “Listening Post” are clearly in some sort of conversation with one another, both provoking similar discussions and considerations, whether or not anyone except me is raising these points.

Why do I blog this? This is a useful example of the way a small, short scene — barely even a story — can help raise an issue to a more tangible and more legible level, making it perhaps more intriguing to grapple with abstractions like the ethics of surveillance. It provides a hook for these conversations in material form.

The Week Ending…031910

Monday March 15 17:26

Well, it was half SXSW 2010 and half back in the studio with some exciting, hungry activities moving things into the happy quadrant. SXSW was a wonderful swirl of head-exploding conversations. Scott Kraft helped me with the material metaphor for the Nokia 1100 — it’s the Mercedes 200 of mobile communications. Like the Mercedes 200, it’d found in *developing, other-wordly places and used as a workhorse. It just keeps working, in all matter of climates and conditions and is a parts-based ecosystem. It just gets repaired to work again, as a taxi, &c., &c., all over the place.

Nathan Moody and I got in a terrific conversation about film production and genre conventions — something I had been thinking hard on in the lead-up to SXSW as I wanted to bring some new insights on this to the Design Fiction conversations but it turned out to be way too much to toss into a 7 minute presentation. He had some curious film suggestions — I take them all and put them in the queue or cart. One was this film Russian Ark: The Masterworks Edition — a single shot film shot in — and “edited to” — 90 minutes. Which means it was one, long take done with a SteadyCam and a lot of batteries. These sorts of curious production challenges and concepts and genre-bending practices are something I find quite intriguing.

It was fun to have a bit of a chat with Eric Rodenbeck about this idea of the selling of aspiration and how you loose perspective. In the selling of a thing that people think’ll be a fine German touring vehicle, they find the bumps and the misses and the grinding gears and rattling suspension. That sucks. It doesn’t inspire trust from the outset and this got me thinking about a different set of physical material metaphors for that first moment with the new thing/service.

Hanging out with David Merrill from Sifteo was good fun — just to hear how they are going about manufacturing their wonderfully evocative Siftables device. That panel was good fun as well — with Nathan Moody David, Johnny Chung Lee, Michele Parras and Peter Merholz moderating — Beyond the Desktop was the panel name and topic. There were lots of good insights in there, of course. Johnny Lee Cheng had some good ones that reflected on that stupid *Moore’s Law graph that goes dizzingly up-and-to-the-right intersects the capabilities of humans well below it’s precipice — succinctly, most people are satisfied doing email and surfing a web page and fuck-off gigahertz processors do not make that stuff faster/easier. The rise of the modestly kitted netbook indicates this much at least. Intel’s created its own Madoff pyramid-scam bubble, using Moore’s Law as a marketing platform. So annoying.

Monday March 15 14:29

The David Byrne film Ride Rise Roar directed by David Hillman Curtis premiered at SXSW 2010 so I kinda hadta go and see it. It was fantastic, but I’m biased. I personally think it sets a new benchmark for concert/tour documentary, seeing the process through each song, the conversations with the creative folks and so forth were enlightening. I think there was a line in there as there was a conversation with Byrne and a collaborator — I forget who, darnit — where there’s this phrase *Dread and Promise* in reference to the sensitivities of one of his/Eno’s songs. I need to get back to what that was because I’ve been trying to find a way to describe something similar to this — *Hopefully Pessimistic. That tension is productive.

Oh yeah — I almost forgot. One of the highlights of SXSW was in the Film component, which I sort of spent more time with this year. There was a collection of films called “Futurestates” that asked several directors to take a social issue and extrapolate it into the near future. I mean..this kind of stuff is great — it coheres much of what we’re doing here in the studio and in the laboratory and now on the set. We saw a handful, and it looks like everything is available online — I highly recommend taking a look. They’re not all spectacular — Plastic Bag seemed to be a one-liner that went on forever — but they are all compelling and provocative if only in the corners and seams of the stories. All short and all dramatic and all done with a high degree of commitment.

There was a round of emails from my alma mater at UC Santa Cruz that was quite intriguing. We do this once a year — who has done what over the year. It was good fun to put that together as in the past I had been timid about being not traditionally academic but turns out that may be more intriguing than holding down a post somewhere in a rather placid discipline. And there were some history documents found under a desk in a box with some wonderful early-days descriptions of how the department got started, how much people hated the idea and some internal memos from Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse. FTW.

That’s it.
Continue reading The Week Ending…031910

The Week Ending Long Ago…031210

Tuesday December 29, 17.27.48

The week before was mostly reassessing the Trust project communication and making notes on what might need to be redone and what might need to be tossed out. The communication itself has a good rhythm although the last share of it — well, basically it felt like falling while skating, but never quite hitting the ground. Kinda cartoon-like. In the end, it was okay but I felt shit.

Other than this work, there was general housekeeping, some house buying and preparing a bit for what I might present for the Design Fiction panel at SXSW, which was to happen on Saturday the 13th. That was a bit poorly planned on two points. The first was that I expected to cover what I normally covered in an hour or 90 minute talk in 7 minutes. The second is that I wanted to cover some new material in addition to that. And there was a third thing — I wanted to use much more video rather than still images. Fail on all points, but at least the prep helped me work through the new stuff and cutting lots of video has given me some good exemplars for a forthcoming bit on genre conventions in science fiction film, which I’m super excited to work on in the coming weeks, house moving permitting.
Continue reading The Week Ending Long Ago…031210

Do or Do Not.

Sunday March 14 20:44

Monday March 15 00:45

Monday March 15 15:14

The variety of permissions and their signals in Austin Texas during SXSW 2010. No firearms, smoking’s okay — and no firearms — licensed or unlicensed — because of this peculiar 51% law in Texas, versus only the forbidding of unlicensed firearms which means, like..there exists unlicensed firearms. Just people buying guns and walking around with them. In Texas.
Continue reading Do or Do Not.

Design Fiction Panel at SXSW 2010

Saturday March 13 12:27

Saturday March 13 12:28

Well, last Saturday the SXSW panel I had proposed on Design Fiction presented our stuff. It was 7 minutes each for myself, Sascha Pohflepp, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagen with Jennifer Leonard doing an excellent job of wrangling and moderating. We invited Bruce Sterling up for the discussion session and he lofted several excellent flash-bangs, many of which are still ringing in the #defi search on Twitter. We’ll have to wait for the video.

((But, here’s a link to the design fiction audio podcast))

There was, of course, so much more to finish and I promised myself I’d put together in a blog post what I had hopelessly hoped I would be able to cram into 7 minutes — but which I quickly realized as I was doing the final assembly would never, ever fit in that short a time. So, I limited myself quite a bit as we had agreed as a panel so that we could have a productive and fruitful presentation.

Thanks to Hugh Forrest and the whole South by Southwest crew for helping make this all go super smooth.
Continue reading Design Fiction Panel at SXSW 2010

He said that science fiction wasn't special..

Wednesday January 13, 14.34.19

“…because of its gadgets and its landscapes. It wasn’t special because of its ideas about technology or progress: instead, it was special because of its language, and the assumptions and techniques readers used to interpret that language, and the ways writers’ knowledge of those assumptions and techniques affected the stories they wrote.”

Matthew Cheney on Samuel Delany.

Why do I blog this?Just a small nugget that helps communicate the special effect of designing with science fiction, and designed fictions. It may be that it is the *language and this idea of the *assumptions and preconceptions readers or those to whom the communication is directed — the things brought to the story, or small moment in which a new sort of experience is depicted. Small extrapolations, such as this idea of a near future world one could imagine based on today mentioned in Sandy Irwin Cohn’s Singularist in which Google’s search becomes Google Find™ as just about everything becomes indexed and meta-referenced — not just physical data, but objects and things, of course.

In the middle of the drunken satellite debacle no one noticed a completely unrelated event, but they would come to see the satellite as a minor scroll-down news item afterward. It probably would not have become a trender until after the satellite fell off the tail. But, the DRM virus went emergent viral and people noticed outages right away. Actually, outage isn’t the right word. Things went missing. And “missing” was a word that the Google generation could barely pronounce, let alone understand.

The DRM failure was epic. There was nothing wrong with the DRM tech — it was just NP complete to an unfortunate cascade of parameters. As it turned out. Google Find™ was a way to Google in 3D, in the rest of the world that had been nearly forgotten as 6.2 billion active users were in their screen worlds. It was brilliant in the way it could fingerprint anything — and then keep track of that anything, anywhere just about all the time. The digital media rights management stuff from the previous decade? — that was barely an obscure, useless diacritic in a footnote in the near future of intellectual and creative property law. It took multivalent, multiperspective tagging and identification algorithms to make it possible to have true, robust identification of everything from music and movies (no brainer, even the remixes could be backtracked to their multiple originals to 98.9% accuracy) to knock-off sneakers and forged car parts. Point a camera at your left sneaker — and Google Find™ would tell you what it was, when you bought it on Craigslist, what you paid for it, what its resale was, where it was made, from what components with their toxicity, what its carbon footprint was, who the cobbler working what shift in which factory in Kandahar or Pyongpang or wherever the hell. And if you sprung for the $79 Google Find Pro annual license fee — the netware could also tell you where the heck your right sneaker was hiding.

What is curious about this story is the way it spirals into the bumps and errors and failures of this mutation of Google Search into something not so good, where everything spins out of control. A good extrapolation and despite the downfall of things — it still holds onto a possible extrapolation of today into a world where things go missing despite the extensive cataloging and indexing of the world’s everythings.

Continue reading He said that science fiction wasn't special..

The Week Ahead: SxSW 2010 — Design Fiction Panel

Pervasive Electronic Games Panel

SXSW in 2007. A panel I organized called Pervasive Electronic Games with heroes Dennis Crowley (*Dodgeball!/*Google!?), Aaron Meyers (Mobzombies mad-man), and ultra-hero fron the other planet, Kevin Slavin (Area/Code). That was fun.

So, early heads-up and there’ll be more — if you’re heading to SxSW this year, I’ve organized a panel under the rubric of *Design Fiction. The full title is Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas, and I feel prescient with that title because it captures much of what’s been going on in the studio over the last, like..3 months.

It’s going to be good. It’ll be Jake Dunagan from the Institute for the Future; Sascha Pohflepp from Supercalifornia (whatwha?!), Stuart Candy from The Long Now Foundation and Jennifer Leonard from IDEO, with perhaps a special delta-net guest operator to flash-bang this one all to hell and gone. We’ve actually done planning and have had *skype conference chats to discuss what we’ve been thinking on this one.

Add this to your conference schedule..and see you with a plate of dry rub in front of me.

Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas

BBQ @ Salt Lick

Continue reading The Week Ahead: SxSW 2010 — Design Fiction Panel