Star Wars: “the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges”

Quite enjoyed this excerpt from J.G. Ballard's critique of Star Wars episode IV:

"The visual ideas in Star Wars are ingenious and entertaining.Ironically it's only now that the technology of the cinema is sufficiently advanced to represent an advanced technology in decline. I liked the super-technologies already beginning to rust around the edges, the pirate starship like an old tramp steamer, the dented robots with IQs higher than Einstein's which resembled beat-up De Sotos in Athens or Havana with half a million miles on the clock. I liked the way large sections of the action were seen through computerized head-up displays which provided information about closing speeds and impact velocities that makes everyone in the audience feel like a Phantom Pilot on a Hanoi bombing run."

Culture Interface: digital interfaces and science-fiction


Back in December 2014, I've been contacted by Ludovic Noël, director of Cité du Design (Saint Etienne, France). He basically asked me whether I'd be interested in being a curator for an exhibit on "interfaces". I immediately said yes and realized it would be a great opportunity to explore the mutual relationships between design (in the context of digital technologies) and science-fiction, quite an important topic for us at the Near Future Laboratory. Here's a translation of the short text I wrote apropos the exhibit:

Minority Report, Back To The Future 2, Avatar, 2001, Iron man, Star Trek… Numerous science-fiction films and series depict technological objects. The interfaces – the ways to control or communicate with machines – are perhaps the most notable example of such phenomenon. So much so that some producers and directors collaborate with designers to improve the quality or the plausibility of these accessories. However, these fictional representations also influence the work of designers and engineers involved in interface design. To overcome the keyboard/mouse duo, virtual reality headsets, neworked gloves, mobile phones, gestural interfaces, smartwatches, and interactive surfaces, to name but a few have been reinvented in the last thirty years. Such examples highlight the fertile relationships between design and science fiction culture. They point out possible directions pursued by interface designers. Returning to the main archetypes of past and interfaces under development, Culture Interface addresses the reciprocal influences between Science Fiction and the design of digital interfaces. Alongside this historical return, the exhibition shows how designers overcame the stereotypes to offer unique creations, which, in turn, renew these great fictional models.

The exhibit, called "Culture Interface: interfaces numériques et science-fiction" opened last month, and it's going to last till Mid-August.

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From a curatorial perspective, I selected seven "archetypes" which are constantly encountered in science-fiction culture: VR headsets, gestural interfaces, neuro-headsets, augmented reality, vocal interfaces, smartwatches, interactive surfaces. For each, I chose two science-fiction movies (e.g. "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Lawnmower Man" for the VR Headsets), five diagrams coming from patents and a selection of design projects both historical (e.g. the Famicom 3D System and the Virtual Boy) and recent (e.g. Oculus Rift with an intriguing game, Google Cardboard). My guiding principle here would be that these different elements would highlight the dialogue between fiction and design work. Sometimes of course, there are direct connections between fictional work and reality, as represented for example by a short excerpt of Dragonball Z (the infamous "it's over 9000 meme") and Google Glasses (“>9K” is printed on the PCB).

There's also an additional categories that consists in design projects that propose alternative visions to such archetypes: paper-digital hybrids, wood-digital hybrid, networked objects, soft interfaces, etc. Another important decision for me was to mix the different "flavors" of design, ranging from speculative design to projects conducted in big corporations, commercial products versus unique prototypes, projects made by students versus the ones done by agencies or R&D centers, etc. Mixing this with movie excerpts and patent drawings certainly is an intriguing choice but it definitely highlights the proximity between the design decisions at stake in the interfaces shown there.

A tremendous thanks to all the designers, and artists, who accepted to be part of the exhibit, the production and communication team who turned spreadsheets/emails/text files into an exhibit, as well as Ludovic for trusting me on this! Big up to Julian Bleecker, Fabien Girardin and Nic Foster at the Near Future Laboratory for their support and discussions about this.

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).

"One thing you seem to have got scarily accurate is the way advertising is weaved into the world…"

One thing you seem to have got scarily accurate is the way advertising is weaved into the world around. Is that something that you foresaw coming, or just a good, estimated guess?

Well, you know it was actually a direct result of our process. The thing that triggered it was that Spielberg wanted, not to make a science fiction film, but a film about a future reality. And what that meant for us that we did a whole other kind of research.

It was really important that we could say, to the best of our knowledge, this is a pretty fair guess at what will happen. More than a guess. A well informed decision based on research that just having Spielberg at the helm gave us access to. Technology departments, CEOs in big corporations who were able to say confidently to us that touchpad technology was going to be big in the future because they were developing it.

- Interesting interview of Alexander McDowell, producer for Minority Report and Avatar.