The Smithsonian on Science Fiction, the Future and design fiction

The May edition of the Smithsonian has an article on sci-fi, the Future (capital F) and design fiction. Based on interviews with various science-fiction authors (Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, Ted Chiang or Neal Stephenson), this piece by Eileen Gunn highlights how the genre acts as a sort of laboratory and "how the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures."

Interestingly, this article describes classical debates about the mutual relationships between sci-fi, science and technological research: the opposition between utopian and dystopian futures (as well as the acknowledgment that this dualism is flawed), the "where's my flying car?" frustration that some authors want to move away from, the need to embrace new visions of the future, etc. The paper concludes with this sort of summary of the role of science-fiction for society:

Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions. Samuel R. Delany, one of the most wide-ranging and masterful writers in the field, sees it as a countermeasure to the future shock that will become more intense with the passing years. “The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes—sometimes catastrophic, often confusing—that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked.”

This piece is quite interesting. However, I'm not sure about the current debate on the importance of reading science-fiction in research labs ("Brueckner laments that researchers whose work deals with emerging technologies are often unfamiliar with science fiction.") Of course, I'm convince about Delany's quote above but I'm unsure whether this applies to ANY book, film, video-game or comic-book related with "the Future". Would the Warhammer 40K series of book really help like a JG Ballard novel? Besides, one might also argue that poetry or other forms of literature might be helpful? And why limiting oneself to this? Perhaps there are other ways to get this "flexible thinking" promoted by the authors there: RTS games or Eve-Online situated in a distant future might be relevant too. This problem was recently address in another article in The Atlantic. Robinson Meyer commented on Google's process for selecting Google X projects: "lt must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction.", to which the author wrote:

When we imagine a “science fiction”-like future, I think we tend to picture completed worlds, flying cars, the shiny, floating towers of midcentury dreams. We tend, in other words, to imagine future technological systems as readymade, holistic products that people will choose to adopt, rather than as the assembled work of countless different actors, which they’ve always really been. The futurist Scott Smith calls these ‘flat-pack futures,’ and they infect “science fictional” thinking. Science fiction, too, can underestimate the importance and role of social change. For every feminist science fiction writer or Afrofuturist, there is a still better-known member of the genre’s far-right.

Why do I blog this? I'm currently writing a book (French) about these topics, and such articles offer interesting parallel to my current thinking and projects carried out at the Near Future Laboratory.

For people intrigued by such material, these pieces should be read alongside Julian's essay on design fiction, as well as "Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation" (Caroline Bassett, Ed Steinmueller, Georgina Voss, Nesta, 2013) and "Imagining Technology" (Jon Turney, Nesta, 2013).



(First published on Core77)

I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.

There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It’s incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin’s allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It’s on it’s way, but it still has some distance to go.

So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It’s an analogy that I’ve been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.

Vodka is made by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley—though the process itself simply needs a starch, so potatoes, beets, etc., can be substituted—which is then filtered through charcoal and bottled. Throughout the process, the distiller aims to create the purest possible alcohol, removing any impurities, coloration or taste. Vodka is simply ethanol, and whilst it has its purpose, it significantly misses the mark in elegance or taste. Gin, however, undergoes another transformative process. Once the pure liquor is extracted, the master distiller adds a finely balanced recipe of extra ingredients. Typically this starts with juniper berries (which are not actually berries), and is followed by seeds, citrus rinds, fragrant barks, spices, wildflower blossoms and other botanicals. These extra ingredients are added to the ethanol and then redistilled a second time. The resulting mixture is a delicate, fragrant, wonderful liquid, with all the elegant balance of a fine perfume: Gin.

So, back to design…

Over the last decade or so, there has been a trend within industrial design to refine and reduce, borne from classic minimalist dogma trodden by Dieter Rams and redelivered by Ive. We have become attuned to reduction as a means of progress in our art. Everything is removed, streamlined and simplified to create an object pure in essence and interaction. We cherish such objects and marvel at their purity, but all too often they lack heart. They seem empty, perfunctory, cold. They are vodka.

By simply following a path of endless reduction we distill out every impurity, we filter every trace of individuality, every element that deviates from the drive towards that (false) grail: a simple singular expression of form and interaction. Whilst the technical prowess needed to achieve such simplicity is significant and admirable, I am often struck by just how dull the results can be.

By designing in a reductive manner, I believe there is often a necessity for a subsequent distillation process. Once the primary design cycle is complete, and prototypes begin arriving, it’s vitally important to revisit the entire experience, to zoom out and re-examine what has been achieved. Following this examination we then have an opportunity to add our ‘botanicals’ to improve the stark proposition before us, then redistill the object for a second time.

I admit this is a strange and counterintuitive twist in the design process. It is preferable to define the entire object and experience at the outset, rather than add time, complexity and headaches later, but in my experience it’s only when design work approaches a nadir of completion that the need for these ‘botanicals’ becomes evident. When presented with a ‘nearly complete’ object we should allow time for more complex thought patterns to emerge. These can be simple things: little changes or additions to software, hardware or tone, but they are vitally important to create depth in the final offering. In short, we turn vodka into gin, which results in a more rounded, elegant and satisfying experience.

The Perfect Negroni:

- Take one measure of Cocchi Vermouth, one measure of Campari and one measure of Dry Gin (try Leopolds or Sipsmiths).
– Pour over ice in a mixing glass.
– Stir for a moment.
– Take an Old Fashioned glass and strain the cocktail over a single large ice cube.
– Garnish with a slice of orange zest.
– Turn off the TV.

Design fiction: a bibliography

Some resources about design fiction I'm use to share with students. Note that the term itself is polysemic and covers different perceptions about its meaning.

Auger, J. (2011). Alternative Presents and Speculative Futures: Designing fictions through the extrapolation and evasion of product lineages., Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation, Digit. Creat., vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 11--35, 2013.

Bassett, C., Steinmuller, E. & Voss, G. (2013). Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science fiction and Innovation”, Nesta Working Paper 13/07.

Bleecker, J. (2009). Design fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction, Near Future Laboratory, Los Angeles, CA,

Bleecker, (2011). Design Fiction: From Props To Prototypes, Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Bleecker, J. & Nova, N., (2009). A synchronicity: Design Fictions for Asynchronous Urban Computing. The Architectural League of New York, New York, NY.

Candy, S. (2010).  The futures of everyday life: politics and the design of experiential scenarios, PhD thesis. The University of Hawai.

DiSalvo, Carl. (2012). Spectacles and Tropes: Speculative Design and Contemporary Food Cultures. The Fibreculture Journal(20).

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2011). Design noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2014). Speculative Everything: design, fiction and social dreaming. MIT Press.

Forlano, L. (2013). Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?, Ethnography Matters.

Franke, B. (2011). Design Fiction is Not Necessarily About the Future, Negotiating Futures / Design Fictions, Swiss Design Network 2011, Basel.

Galloway, A. (2013). Towards Fantastic Ethnography and Speculative Design, Ethnography Matters.

Grand, S. & Wiedmer, M. (2010). Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World, DRS, 2010.

Hales, D. (2013). Design fictions an introduction and provisional taxonomy, Digital Creativity, 24:1, 1-10

Jain, A., Ardern, J. & Pickard, J. (2012). Design Futurescaping, Journal of Futures Studies. 

Johnson, B.D. (2009). “Science Fiction Prototypes Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Future and Love Science Fiction”, in Intelligent Environments 2009 – Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Intelligent Environments, Callaghan, V., Kameas, A., Reyes, A., Royo, D., Weber, M. (Eds.), IOS Press, Barcelona pp. 3-8.

Johnson, B.D. (2011). “Love and God and Robots: The Science Behind the Science Fiction Prototype “Machinery of Love and Grace””, in Workshop Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Intelligent Environments Augusto, J. C., Aghajan, V., Callaghan, V., Cook, D. J., O’Donoghue, J., Egerton, S., Gardner, M., Johnson, B. D., Kovalchuk, Y., López-Cózar, R., Mikulecký, P., Ng, J. W. P., Poppe, R., Wang, M. J., Zamudio, V. (Eds.), IOS Press, Nottingham pp. 99-127.

Kirby, D. (2010). The future is now: Diegetic prototypes and the role of popular films in generating real-world technological development. Social Studies of Science 40 (1), pp. 41-70.

Kirby, D., 2011 Lab coats in Hollywood: science, scientists and cinema. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Morrison, A. (2014). Design Prospects: Investigating Design Fiction via a Rogue Urban Drone, In Proceedings of DRS 2014 Conference. Umeå, Sweden.: 16.06.2014–19.06.2014

Raford, Noah. (2012). From Design to Experiential Futures, The Future of Futures: The Association of Professional Futurists.

Shedroff N. & Noessel C. (2012). Make It So Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. San Francisco: Rosenfeld.

Sterling, B. (2009), Design Fiction, Interactions 16 (3), pp. 20-24.

Ward, M. (2013). Design Fiction as Pedagogic Practice Towards a fictionally biased design education, Medium. 

Zeller, L. (2011) What You See Is What You Don’t Get: Addressing Implications of Information Technology through Design Fiction” Lecture Notes in Computer Science 6770  pp. 329-336.