From awhile ago, back at the end of last year I went to UC Calgary’s Environmental Design and presented a further iteration of the design fiction business. I realized I hadn’t put down on paper or on this blog some thoughts from the presentation — but mostly thoughts about what design fiction can do.
Just in terms of process, my basic routine is to extend the thinking in steps, using commitments to travel and give a talk or facilitate a workshop as the motivation to move the general thinking a bit further. Where it’s going is oftentimes vague sometimes — but generally it’s just a kind of extending conversation that helps me and I hope others think about the opportunities for collapsing design and science, fact and fiction together into a productive muddle.
In this talk I set the usual frame — placing science fiction alongside of science fact and leveraging David Kirby’s work on the diegetic prototype — the prototype that does more than an engineering or technical or instrumental prototype. ((That may be my emphasis to say that it does more — or a conceit on my part.)) The exemplary diegetic prototype is revealed through Minority Report — the film — and the role that John Underkoffler played in the technical design and technical production of the film’s gestural interface. Despite the challenges of such a system in practice, Underkoffler was able to work through technical issues pertaining to such an interface mechanism through the context of the film’s story. He had a basis upon which the interface would be employed in the future of P.K. Dick’s world of 2050. Moreover the film’s popularity and just its existence provided a way of circulating the concept of this specific kind of gestural interface. The film and the fictional technology that Underkoffler proposed and demonstrated in the film became a way of leveling-up the idea — giving it some exceptional circulation. In effect, the film became the logical extension of the M.I.T. Media Lab’s mantra of demo, demo, demo — or demo-or-die.
This is the stock presentation I’ve given on design fiction. Early on — I think the first time I explicated all this stuff was in Amsterdam where I gave a talk at the Sandburg Instituut Master Course during Halloween in 2008 — I was trying perhaps not successfully to integrate film clips as a way of describing the importance of the story, rather than just objects or props. That is — during that particular presentation in Amsterdam — I showed unusually long film clips. So — the first 3 minutes of Minority Report, for example. Let’s watch that and allow the cool technology to be part of a story that is more about humans as social beings and this lets the tech become social too — it’s not just a doorknob sitting by itself. It’s also a social-instrument, an artefact that has a role to play in this particular drama. What Spielberg is able to do is introduce the technology to us — it’s just a prop — without making the whole film *just about the gesture technology or even the pre-cogs, or the slick environmental advertising, or the jet packs. They are there, of course — but that’s not what the story is about, any more than the Maltese Falcon was about a statue of a falcon from Malta. The statuette was a prop — a way of spinning the story about a couple of crooked crooks.
The purpose was to give a larger context for the gestural interface rather than just its use in the 30 or 40 seconds we see it in the beginning of the film. I wanted to give the device a role and a purpose — an instrument that’s used routinely. I wanted to shift it from being a spectacle to being just an ordinary albeit sophisticated bit of technical kit. Just in the same way that a microscope in a forensics-heavy police procedural television show is not fetishized as a prop or device in that sort of story, neither should be the gestural interface in Minority Report — even though to our eyes as viewers, at least at the first screening, it is quite extraordinary. The point is that the film makes the device quite ordinary and routine. This is John Anderton just going about his business as a savvy, street-smart, afflicted cop. It just happens to be a future world to us, with all its trappings of things extraordinary.
From this I began thinking about the conventions, stylings, idioms and techniques that make the future seem like today. How do you make the extraordinary appear ordinary and quotidian? This seems to be an important way of depicting the future and making it seem possible. It’s just a way of designing — an understatement of perhaps novel, innovative and crazy ideas from the future. Why do this? Because in a way this is part of the work of design innovation. To make something spectacular routine, domesticated (to borrow from James Auger) and perhaps even boring and everyday. When you can do this, you’ve turned a corner into a new space that provides a setting for a kind of innovation that is chaste and modest and thereby, perhaps — entirely possible. This then communicates your innovative, crazy, off-the-hook idea as legible and something which can already be accomplished.
There’s much in the social, cultural and political history of science and innovation on the topic of modesty as a mode of conveying and communicating an idea. Scientists are especially guilty of this mode of communication — behaving only as unadorned and modest presenters of things-as-facts. Just revealing nature as it is. Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life and especially Schaffer’s A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series) speak much on this topic. I think here I’ve internalized their insights and tried to find ways to leverage the modest proposal of a new, speculative idea — as was the air-pump in its time — as a way to communicate it convincingly. In part design fiction is about communicating a new idea, but of course it is also, perhaps mostly, about actually doing design through the modes and idioms of science fiction.
This way of presenting an idea and enrolling people in it is described quite convincingly by Shapin and Schaffer. It’s really an important read in this regard. It’s a great historical book. I seem to re-read it every few years because it’s almost tactical in its description of how ideas become materialized and circulated. It’s certainly much more thorough and convincing than popular surveys of how ideas evolve and develop — I kept thinking about how loosey-goosey Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation end up being for its lack of rigor and its desperate hunt for a simple one-liner — this whole adjacent possible. It reads like a nursery rhyme that forgets that its okay that the world is an intractable complex and entangled place. ((G’aah. I’m all riled up now. I’ll get back to that one later.))
Anyway — so what I’m trying to do now with the whole design fiction business is catalog a series of genre conventions — ways in which one can describe an idea or an object or a bit of thinking. How do we show ideas as they would be in the world? Or as they come to be? I’m thinking about mostly visual stories — little films or proper films, but mostly little films because they can be produced, we have a pre-existing language of visual story telling and now I’m convinced that that language can be used to also do the work of designing. What I and others are talking about is using film/visual explications as a means of prototyping and, perhaps more importantly — designing. It shouldn’t be just a way of showing a concept but also a way to feedback into the design process — or it should be a part of the design process, not just a final demonstration. They should be made in such a way that thinking is going on while they are being made. One should pay attention to lessons being taught by the little filmmaking process because effectively, then — you are also doing design, just with fiction which allows more freedom in the explorations.
Why do I blog this? Well — I’m doing a few design fiction workshops later this summer and fall and it seems like film is a viable way to think through how to set the scene for a near future world, or little moment of that world. It would be quite nice to do a workshop that included film making as the “hands-on” work part of the workshop. It actually takes a lot to think through things if you’re making a little movie, even a super little one. But, things get even more intriguing when the making of the film is actually part of the design process itself — allowing the extra work to be more than communicating the idea, but actually informing it quite directly. Some of the little films we’ve made in the studio were exceptionally useful to shape and challenge notions that work quite well in conversation, or on the screen or on big posters. It’s when things go in the hand and become materialized that you start to discover something about the design that needs more help to make its way into people hands.