You'd Be Right To Wonder

Wednesday January 12 00:17

You’d be right to wonder why there has not been much here for a couple-few weeks. Contrary to a vicious rumor, we neither adopted a needy office pet nor did we father-seed a dead pop star’s child.

It’s Annual Planning Month here in the Laboratory, when we assess what will be our near future priorities, goals, strategic themes and projects. It’s weeks of mulling, muttering, hemming, hawing, pausing, sputtering, drinking and brow-furrowing. After all the strategery comes the planning. We’re deploying a rigorous phalanx of unforgiving planning-to-do tools, reacquainting ourselves with our old avuncular friend — Mr. Gantt and his fabulous chart. Along with this is Mr. Gantt’s trusty Sancho Panza, Mr. Miles Stone.

That’s right. Planning, charting, back-filling objectives and sticking to our guns. This way, at the end of each “Q” (that’s Quarter to you non-accomplishers-of-things) we can re-assess and re-target. In fact, we might even be working at the level of the “P” (sorry, “Period” or one of your Earth “Months” to you terrestrials) and perhaps even the microscopic time element — the Week.

Where has this sudden bit of planning gluttony come from?

*Shrug. Who the fuck knows.

But, it feels right and it will help the Laboratory to say “no” because it’ll all be right there, in Mr. Gantt’s chart and resource managers can point and wag a finger and say “Uhn uhn uhhhnnn..that’s not going to happen. Back to your computation terminal!”

The ring of the ball-peen hitting the work piece on the anvil. The smell of the coke smelting the ore. Lustful, material things. Things getting done and made.

So — what’s on the plate?

Well, I can give you the *general theme, but nothing super specific, and that’s only because of the deeply sensitive nature of our work and the fact that it might have deep political affect on the ways the needle-heads upstairs in Finance & Control’s (mis)understand what exactly it is we do and how it brings incalculable value to the efficiency of the Laboratory — unlike the Bridges and Thoroughfare Systems Group which never, by the way, ever did a damn thing to contribute to our bottom line, least as best as I can tell.

Wednesday December 29 17:00

Here it is. This year’s theme: Less Yammering. More Hammering.

Let me explain. In the recently deceased year, we spent the bulk of our informal projects time talking about things that were *more than interesting to us.

It was more than interesting. Supra-interesting. Boundless interestingness. I’m talking mostly about, well — talking about #designfiction. And this will continue as a theme within whatever theme happens to be the theme-of-the-day.

At the same time, the yammering meant there was less time (despite having it on the list of the Professional Development Plan) actually making things. Now — I love to talk and have conversations around engaging, new, whacky-but-intriguing ideas. That’s the guano of innovation. It’s how things change, grow, evolve. Ideas come to life in the conversations. The conversations are that which promote and propagate; they contain the narrative logics that poke and prod and stretch and materialize those thoughts, making them more tangible and more legible. So — I love to yammer. As you may know — I also really love to hammer: to make things that are distillations and materializations of those conversations. Little props and provocative objects that help think-through and evolve those conversations.

Years ago the Laboratory wrote a tremendously short essay called Why Things Matter in which I ham-fistedly explained my thinking about the importance of “social objects” and the ways that these can become as yammer-y as normal human beings and, thereby, bring about material change to the world. It was most an interest in how things like Pigeons or Salmon suddenly connected to the *network in oftentimes simple ways could alter the terms of conversations about things like environmental issues, pollution or fishing legislation.

What I learned through that was the importance of making things — but it’s not just the made-thing but the making-of-the-thing, if you follow. In the *making you’re also doing a kind of thinking. Making is part of the “conversation” — it’s part of the yammering, but with a good dose of hammering. If you’re not also making — you’re sort of, well..basically you’re not doing much at all. You’ve only done a *rough sketch of an idea if you’ve only talked about it and didn’t do the iteration through making, then back to thinking and through again to talking and discussing and sharing all the degrees of *material — idea, discussions, conversations, make some props, bring those to the discussion, *repeat.

Friday January 14 12:04

So — we’re not done here with the #designfiction theme, but it is an idea that needs some material-making, at least here, and lots of people are doing this as well. But, generally thinking — it’s time to get back to making stuff, building little probes and provocateurs and trouble-makers. That means booting up the old software-making toolkits, breaking a few of Simon’s milling tools (sorry, again..), learning how to CNC myself so I can make my own mistakes, getting a CAD package in that old PC in the Laboratory, etc.

There’ll be posts here and status updates and of course — yammering. It’ll just be tempered with and by and through the making as it once was oh a couple-few years ago when we were making hellzalot of electronics.

This’ll be the year of trouble-making apps of various sorts, I think. The first one is the digital edition of the previous Drift Deck, analog edition which has had a sort of silver-year’d renaissance thanks to @bldgblog writing a nice, thoughtful little post about it. That’s being done by Jon Bell and Dawn Lozzi with myself being the design project equivalent of the annoying sot who wants to have “just one more.” Allegedly, so long as I *don’t have “just one more” this should be done by the new networked age’s equivalent of the finish line — South by Southwest, which’d be March 11. (Here is a printable PDF of the Drift Deck, analog edition for those who have had trouble downloading it from Slide Share.)

There are other things, of course. The completion of the Laboratory’s re-make of 2001: A Space Odyssey, finally doing the animated Death Match between Apollo LEM and Space POD, a *book project with more images than words, revisiting two old location-based software toys, and a crackapp that may hopefully get us in good trouble with parents.

Thursday January 13 17:56

Finally — this is it, really: the sub-genre of this year’s theme “Less Yammering. More Hammering.” is — “Low Brow.” In fact “Low Brow” was the original theme, but it didn’t test too well in the experts’ reviews. But, if I think about it, it lives on in a way. It provided the transposition algorithm, turning the wonderfully optimistic “Get Excited. Make Things.” that our friend Matt Jones (@moleitau) of Berg meme-seeded into a sort of by-the-scruff, morning drunkard, roughneck-ificiation — “shut up and just do it, you moron” — only I made to rhyme so that I can sing it — should things come to that.
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Primer: Inexplicable Ideas In Design Fiction

Something that the almost inscrutable science-fiction film Primer does quite well is to paint enough of the contours of its science and technology to give the viewer the sense that *something is going on that should make perfectly good sense..if I was only a bit more techo-literate in the arcane minutia of quantum mechanics, time travel and so on.

Early on we see the DIY garage tinkerers/hackers/engineers working on a proof-of-concept of…something. They’re in their *garage, and that’s where weird, misunderstood, works-of-passion happen, at least in the American suburbs _ like garage bands, garage science is populated in the cultural imaginary as where real, dyed-in-the-wool innovation happens. (Much like the time-travel science/design-fiction in How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, as it turns out.)

The scene above is a favorite. We watch a device of some sort — small, exposed printed-circuit board, with a LCD numerical display that changes on a little bit. Car batteries for power; roughly hewn bread boards. Shaking assemblies; slight bits of panic and confusion. Something is happening here, and you can only watch the visual story as it unfolds to fill in the gaps. The setting makes it all seem much more possible — garage, a couple of guys discussing their work in the vernacular of…whatever they’re working on. And somehow this makes it seem honest — it’s not didactic like some techoscience-based science-fiction — or even documentaries. We’re not meant to completely understand the quantum physics here, even if it were understandable. When the story telling becomes too didactic, it loses something. It should be as complex as it would be, and possibly completely impossible for anyone to understand but the six people in the world who are working on it, like String Theory or some such.

In an interview with the director:

From the start, he wanted his dialogue to sound absolutely authentic. The only way to accomplish this goal was to immerse himself in the study of physics — the shared fixation of his characters — until he became “conversant” in it. “I had never taken a physics course,” recalls [screenwriter/director/co-star] Carruth. “but I read a lot about it and consulted graduate student research projects I had found online.” In the movie, conversations among the characters are extremely realistic: they talk to each other using the kind of techno-speak that would come naturally to work-obsessed scientists.

The film itself is intriguing for its story and how its told on the screen, but also for the production. Shane Carruth — writer, director, film score, co-star, &c. — is an engineer who wanted to tell a story and so learned how to do so by teaching himself filmmaking. Done on the cheap — $7000 according to IMDB — it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004 and a $20,000 prize from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for films dealing with science and technology. (That’s cool.)

Further in the interview, he describes an insight on the aesthetic of new ideas and innovation, which is of course much more rough-hewn then was typical for the canon of science-fiction. It’s all about the DIY finish — things bought at the local hard-goods store, or McMaster and cobbled together as best as one can with, oftentimes, low-budgets. Perhaps something like what Google’s first server looks like.

The inspiration for PRIMER came to Carruth at a time when he was reading books about discoveries. He observed that “whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out. First, the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second, prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place.”

Why do I blog this? To add some additional notes to the design fiction chronicles and their attendant style conventions.

Late Edition: Nicolas Nova has pointed us to a Time Line!


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A Few Things The Laboratory Did In 2010

Friday December 10 15:28

Again, mostly in the notes-to-self column, I’d just like to capture a few things that we here at the Near Future Laboratory did in the year 2010.

It was a year chock full of Design Fiction actions and activities, an exhibition of some work, talks and discussions about projects and ideas. The usual, except there was a dearth of making-of-things, something which will be remidied one way or t’other in 2011. ((I shouldn’t discount the zealous skate photography, though.))

So, just a fool’s list:

Saturday March 13 12:27

There was the panel at South by Southwest with Stuart Candy, Sascha Pohflepp, Jake Dunagan, Jennifer Leonard and Bruce Sterling. I think that was a highlight as it led to some great conversations from the dais and Bruce’s interjections and interceptions were quite inspiring. I think the best part of the panel was what we talked about getting the whole thing organized. There were some really intriguing Skype conference calls, just talking and learning from each other. That was good stuff.
(Audio Podcast of the SXSW Design Fiction Panel)

Friday September 17 17:06

Art Center’s “Made Up: Design Fiction” theme was (and continues to be) an opportunity to further stretch and elaborate the Design Fiction theme — finding new ways to actually *do design, and then sponsor a number of works exploring the idea of making things up as a way to do advanced design. I love what the Media Design Program folks are doing over there. Participating in the “As If: Alternate Realities” panel discussion and other activities over there has been good, great fun. ((I was also super excited to go to the MDP MFA Thesis Reviews and see student work first-hand, give feedback and all those other good things..))

Tuesday October 26 15:22

The original design fiction essay was rejiggered and reprinted in Volume Quarterly for their Issue No. 25 with the theme: The Moon. That was an interesting re-writing project because I had wanted to say a bit about how I understood architecture as perhaps the canonical design fiction enterprise — it is so imminently focused on what could be, and perhaps so finely tuned to tell a story — to *pitch what the future landscapes might look and feel like, and suggest how humanity might live and embody space. Architecture has this remarkable conundrum in that it likely spends most of its time constructing facsimiles of what could be as concrete gets poured based on most designs so infrequently. Sure — the big corporate architecture firms make their malls and condos and so on. But the speculative, richly imaginative contingent of architects — well..they enter competitions with models and renderings. In fact, I would guess that most of architecture does precisely this — it spends its time (not fruitlessly, I would say) telling stories through materialized forms: models, renderings, films, stories essentially. Designed fictions, I might say. In any case, the reviewers for this particular re-write didn’t find it substantive or something — it’s fine. It’s a theme I’d like to work on in some fashion for 2011, though. Even though I have a grumbling relationship to architecture.

Monday December 13 14:19

Which might seem like it contradicts the fact that I participated in two reviews for USC Architecture, one in Neil Leach’s wonderful “Interactive Architecture” studio, and the other for Geoff Manaugh’s equally provocative Cinema City studio. Both were thoughtful and fun and engaging. I often felt that the students got a bit too ruffed up by the jurors/critics, but I have *no idea what the culture of that design practice is, so maybe that’s entirely normal. I always thought it was soft gloves before you went bare-knuckles in crits. Maybe its just all tough-love all the time.

My chum John Marshall and I had our essay appear in the Digital Blur: Creative Practice at the Boundaries of Architecture, Design and Art book. It’s an essay on Undisciplinarity — doing things without predefined boundaries, or without constraints and often without discipline. I think it’s a useful way of doing things differently and perhaps making new things. Just looking at the world and its possibilities from a sideways glance and without curmudgeonly bureaucracies to say you’re doing things the wrong way round. Pick up a copy, not for the essay but for the other great documentation by artists and designers.

Friday July 23 12:01

For the third time I was able to attend ThingM’s Sketching In Hardware event, this time held in Los Angeles at that crazy Encounter Restaurant. I’d share the presentation, but its 1GB because in 2010 I sort of went a bit crazy including film clips in my presentations. I wish there was a better way to share these enormous things.

The Laboratory had a spot presenting at Kicker Studio’s Device Design Day last August. Again, more elaborations and thinking about the Design Fiction stuff — “Design Fiction Goes From Props to Prototypes” — thinking about prototypes as ways to test ideas (not just their material forms): “Prototypes are ways to test ideas—but where do those ideas come from? It may be that the path to better device design is best followed by creating props that help tell stories before prototypes designed to test technical feasibility. What I want to suggest in this talk is the way that design can use fiction—and fiction can use design—to help imagine how things can be designed just a little bit better.”
(Kicker Device Design Day on Vimeo)


The Apparatus for Capturing Other Points of View was exhibited at the HABITAR Exhibition in Madrid. The concept of the exhibition is something that is quite close to the hearts of the Laboratory, so I will put it here: (you can download the exhibition catalog as well)

“Utopian and radical architects in the 1960s predicted that cities in the future would not only be made of brick and mortar, but also defined by bits and flows of information. The urban dweller would become a nomad who inhabits a space in constant flux, mutating in real time. Their vision has taken on new meaning in an age when information networks rule over many of the city’s functions, and define our experiences as much as the physical infrastructures, while mobile technologies transform our sense of time and of space.

This new urban landscape is no longer predicated solely on architecture and urbanism. These disciplines now embrace emerging methodologies that bend the physical with new measures, representations and maps of urban dynamics such as traffic or mobile phone flows. Representations of usage patterns and mapping the life of the city amplify our collective awareness of the urban environment as a living organism. These soft and invisible architectures fashion sentient and reactive environments.

Habitar is a walk through new emerging scenarios in the city. It is a catalogue of ideas and images from artists, design and architecture studios, and hybrid research centres. Together they come up with a series of potential tools, solutions and languages to negotiate everyday life in the new urban situation.


I participated in the University of Michigan’s Taubman College’s Future of Technology Conference, which was an interesting two days of sort-of lighting 15 minute presentations from a whole string of folks, mostly from in and around architecture (again!) to hold forth on the future and what it was. ((There are some good talks in there — Bruce Sterling, Usman Haque, Hernan Diaz Alonso. Note bene how mine is nearly spot-on 15 minutes. Architects love to speak, even if they go over their allotted time. I could’ve carried on. But I didn’t, out of courtesy. *shrug.) Most of them basically shared their work, which I guess is hopeful insofar as they imagine the future full of their work, I guess. I basically showed my “graphs of the future” thing — it was 8 graphs at the time. These are a few “graphs” that are sort of canonical ways of presenting what the future looks like, usually according to quantitative metrics.

Friday October 29 05:50

Then there was a nice close to the year with the Swiss Design Network Conference whose theme was Design Fiction (yesss…) It was a nice time in Basel, with a chance to meet some new friends and then people who I had only heard of or only talked to by email or phone. I gave one of the keynotes and helped Nicolas facilitate the workshop on Using Failures in Design Fictions.

I’d say in 2010 Design Fiction learned about itself as a practice of doing design, provoking and entertaining and suggesting new ways of seeing and understanding. It has been well-articulated and played with and used as a lever for all kinds of amazing work all over the place. I think the best go-to place is by @bruces wonderful Design Fiction category list — much more consistent and thorough than the Near Future Laboratory’s Design Fiction Chronicles and less-hampered by the ninnies at Vimeo who clearly don’t understand the way I was using film clips to discuss, in a scholarly sense, the role of science fiction film. *sigh. Anyway — @bruces is the real scout-about for what’s going on at the many fringes of thinking/making/doing.

Well..those are the highlights I can think of right now.

Continue reading A Few Things The Laboratory Did In 2010