Designing Fiction in Volume Q.

Killer Pod

For my record, below is the essay that appeared in Volume Quarterly, Issue 25.

I just want to say that, from my perspective, right now — Design Fiction is quite useful as a way to say the things that one imagines and that might be seen as outrageous, or weird, or even “out of scope.” It’s a way of thinking about what could be in the quite near future because things *can change, even more than we would expect, quite soon. It does not necessarily take epic, big science, big politics or systemic upheaval to go from the world we have right at this moment, to a world in which the pulse and flow of life makes this moment seem arcane, old-fashioned or quaint. What ever happened to the dial tone? And complete sentences?

Julian Bleecker & Edwin Gardner

They say that the most convincing lies are the ones that stay “close” to the truth, probably this goes for good fiction as well. If fiction looses all relation with reality it becomes fantasy, escapism or utopia. To make good fiction, one needs a special relation with the truth. Telling a story about a possible world, or making a prototype of an idea that stay close to what we understand as reality and the everyday adds a degree of legibility. These things seem more possible than something that has no clear relationship to “today.” The truth of the present becomes a source that serves as a departure point. What we know today is where we evolve our understanding of how things are and how they could possibly be in the near future. It is the reality from which we pursue some small change in order to understand how things could be different from our expectations as to what the future will be. This might sound as a cryptic description of design, or science fiction. Or perhaps it is both: Design fiction.

Science fiction is the intelligent extrapolation of the present into alternate futures. These are futures that have a high degree plausibility which can be recognized and are legible because they have traces of the present. Interesting scifi futures are not just about progress, but about exploring the social and cultural as much as much as the technological. Design fiction is a practice of fiction that operates somewhere in between science fact and science fiction. Design as a practice of fiction is somewhat different from design proper. The constraints of science are defined by fact and by empiricism. That which cannot be measured, that which cannot be observed one way or another is considered irrelevant or non-existent by science fact. Science fiction, on the other hand, is expected to explore and probe those things that science fact dismisses. It is truly a kind of experimental art in this respect. Science fiction investigates possibilities extensively and with a wider set of allowances than science fact ever could. Add to science fact and science fiction the making and materializing rituals of design, which in the best of cases does not wait for something to be deemed “possible” or even reasonable before investing itself to imagining what could be, and you have a wonderful hybrid practice for extrapolating today into the near future. This is design fiction — a practice of making and creating that works as an interchange of concepts traveling back and forth between science fact and fiction.

In the scientific community mixing up these “genres” or disciplines is equal to blasphemy, or at least frowned upon. People who claim science fact as the practice idiom in which they do their work would never really say that they imagine things beyond “fact.” Certainly they enter into a sort of science fiction, which they might describe as speculating and “brainstorming.” This is a kind of science fiction that is made legitimate by calling its result hypotheticals, or by explaining these speculations as “theoretical prototypes”, or “just ideas” as if to say, “I know this is silly and not really possible, nevertheless..” These are explanations that are like perimeter alarms going off around disciplinary turf, indicating that we’re beginning to breech the hard, well-policed border between the proper work of science fact and the murky terrain of science fiction.

In a similar way there are science fiction idioms that define the boundaries of the genre. For example, “hard” science fiction. In this case “hard” refers to the rigor and the hard-set scientific principles necessary to support the accuracy of any science content within the story. Hard science in fiction must be explainable by extrapolations of present science fact. Hard science fiction is the perimeter alarm from the other side, as science fiction makes incursions into the knowledge and truths of science fact. One could say that when science fiction comes close to present-day reality, or state of the art technology it transforms into another “in-between” genre like a “technothriller” instead of “scifi”. It’s close enough to the present day, to the quotidian that it is no longer precisely fiction. This is the way that science fiction extrapolates and speculates based on the present, but perhaps more importantly in the scifi novel or film these extrapolations are worked out at the scale of society. This is how science fiction can have a direct impact on the human condition. The characters and the narrative are provided with a playing-field in which new dynamics of existence unfold into persuasive thinking exercises that, at some level we all engage on. The best science fiction makes us think about the future and our place in it.

Despite the boundaries and perimeter alarms, ideas, people and objects travel between disciplines and leave their traces. With science fact and fiction this is no different. Design fiction lives in between the disciplinary perimeters and it makes this exchange productive. This interrelationship between science fact and science fiction is very important. It reveals how culture circulates, especially the formation of ideas, knowledge and their object proxies. Which ideas get to circulate out in the world and why? How do ideas obtain their “mass” and accumulate attention and conversation. What about the ideas that become sidelined and obsolete?

Following two examples we can get an idea what happens in this “in between” where the practice of designing fiction is at work. First we start at fact and see how it influences fiction in the production of Spielberg 2002 film Minority Report. Second we’ll look at fiction and how it influences fact, in the case of the development of Virtual Reality and Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp)[1].

Tuesday October 26 15:22

Fiction follows Fact: Minority Report

[image: stills from Minorty Report’s Gestural Interface]

Between Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report through to the Steven Spielberg production of a film based on that story, an interchange of ideas and objects took place. This happened through the activities of scientists in their labs, conversations with film directors, props makers and experts on the future, back through to special effects artisans working in their shops with their film production software. Following just a few of these linkages shows how easily science-fact and science-fiction swap ideas, properties and objects.

The story of Minority Report takes place in 2054 and follows inspector John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) who works in at “Precrime” a police department specialized in solving murders before they happen, through apprehending criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “precogs”. This foreknowledge can be extracted from the precogs brains in the form of moving images and sounds, in which Anderton searches for clues on where, when and who are involved in the crime to be committed. Anderton can manipulate (zoom, playback, pause, remove, pan, save, etc.) these images and sounds through a gestural interface. This gestural interface is a wonderful prototype of a ubiquitous computing future, where a database of sound and images are manipulated through orchestra conductor- like gestures, summoning and juxtaposing fuzzy snippets of what is almost about to happen.

In the production of Minority Report, the idea for such a gestural interface came from somewhere and at least in part from John Underkoffler, who was the film’s technical consultant. Underkoffler was a member of the Tangible Media Group at M.I.T., and had participated along with a panel of luminaries in providing some speculations as to what the future of Minority Report might be experienced based on their insights and their extrapolations of the current trends in the technology world. What was needed were some projections to help trace a vector from the present to the future of 2054, when the film takes place.

From a project at the Tangible Media Group called “The Luminous Room” were a number of “immersive” computing concepts that were drawn from some of the principles of ubiquitous computing. The principles are related to the idea that computers might become more directly integrated into the architecture of the environments that people occupy. Rather than manipulating them with a keyboard and mouse, people might use gestures for direct input.

The gestural control of the clue-construction device as a film element has a well-balanced mix of visual dynamics that will keep today’s science fiction film audience riveted, and legible interaction rituals that allow the audience to follow the gestures closely to develop an understanding of precisely what is going on, what is being manipulated and how bits of clue are juxtaposed and re-arranged as one might do with a puzzle. Special attention is placed on the precision of the gestures that Anderton uses in order to manipulate the fragments of video and sound — zooming in on a bit of imagery with hand-over-hand gesture; deleting a few things by moving them with a forceful and dismissive sweep into this interface’s version of today’s user interface trash can.

There’s more than the clue-construction device that Anderton uses, it is the longer bit of story that I want to highlight, and not just the instrumental technology. Not the story itself — the pre-murder. Rather, I want to highlight what the story does so as to fill out the meaning of the clue-construction device, to make it something legible despite its foreignness. It is a kind of science fact-fiction work that effectively tries out some ideas within a film’s narrative. It’s sort of like prototyping — sketching out possibilities by building things, wrapping them around a story and letting them play out as they might.

More formally, this is what David A. Kirby calls the “diegetic prototype.”[2] It’s a kind of technoscientific prototyping activity knotted to science fiction film production that emphasizes the circulation of knowledge and ideas. It is like a concept prototype, but since we are designing fiction the added property is a story into which the prototype can play its part in a way different from a plain old demonstration. The prototype enlivens the narrative, moving the story forward while at the same time subtly working through the details of itself.

“..scientists and engineers can also create realistic filmic images of “technological possibilities” with the intention of reducing anxiety and stimulating desire in audiences to see potential technologies become realities. For scientists and engineers, the best way to jump start technical development is to produce a working prototype. Working prototypes, however, are time consuming, expensive and require initial funds. I argue in this essay that for technical advisors cinematic depictions of future technologies are actually “diegetic prototypes” that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, benevolence, and viability. Diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage even over true prototypes: in the diegesis these technologies exist as “real” objects that function properly and which people actually use.” [3]

The film becomes an opportunity to create a vision of the future but, perhaps more important, to share that vision to a large public audience. In specific cases, such as the evocative “gesture interface” concepts Underkoffler introduced into the film’s story and its production design, ideas gather a kind of knowledge-mass. They become culturally legible and gain weight and currency. We “get” the idea of using conductor-like gestures to interact with our information technology because it is given to us through the film, it’s pre-science, the discussions that evolve in media and with friends, the formation of companies to further develop the ideas, bolstered on the cultural literacy with touch and gesture interactions, and so on. To gain cultural legibility takes more than a scientist demonstrating an idea in a laboratory. What is needed is a broader, context — such as one that great storytellers and great filmmakers can put together into a popular film, with an engaging narrative and some cool gear.

The follow-on to this science fiction film introduction of gesture interfaces to a large public audience are more gesture interfaces, each one staking out Minority Report as a point of conception, either explicitly or implicitly. It’s as if Minority Report serves as the conditions of possibility for more and further explorations of the possibility for gesture interaction — whether touchbased gestures, as in the Apple iPhone and other techniques, or free-space and tracking gesture interactions, like the Nintendo Wii, for example. This is not precisely the case: we are not interested in claims as to priority, ownership and who did what first. What is much more interesting is the brocade of activity that weaves in and through the fictional/factual special effects props of Minority Report.

[Image: Google ‘minority report’ search results]
[Image: CNN]

In 2002, Minority Report was released, which we may describe as the diegetic prototype for the gestural interface concept. In this segment, CNN reports on the real-world prototype in the year 2005. The following years trace a knot of interpretations and reflections as the idea of a gesture-based interaction circulates and gains “idea mass” — the “Google” of “Minority Report Interface” the breadth of interpretations and the notion that moving ideas to their materialization can happen through the lens of fiction.

Fact Follows Fiction: HITLab

[Image: guy with VR glasses]

In the early nineties at the University of Washington the Human Interface Technology Lab, or HITLab was working quite hard on virtual reality (VR), a kind of immersive, 3D environment that, today, one might experience as something like Second Life. The technology had a basic instrumental archetype canonized in a pair of $250,000 machines (one for each eyeball) called, appropriately, the RealityEngine. With video head mount that looked like a scuba-mask, one could experience a kind of digital virtual world environment that was exciting for what it suggested for the future, but very rough and sparse in its execution.

One of the informal socialization rituals of acquainting yourself to the other members of the HITLab team — and to the idioms by which the lab shared its collective imaginary about what exactly was going on here, and what was VR. Anything that touches the word “reality” needed some pretty fleet-footed references to help describe what’s going on, and a good set of anchor points so one can do the indexical language trick of “it’s like that thing in …”

For the HITLab the closest thing to a shared technical manual was William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer” which was encouraged to read closely before you got too far involved and risked the chance of being left out of the conversations that equated what HITLab was making with Gibson’s “Cyberspace Deck”, amongst other science fiction props. This is from a paper that Randy Walser from Autodesk wrote around the same time:

“In William Gibson’s stories starting with Neuromancer, people use an instrument called a “deck” to “jack” into cyberspace. The instrument that Gibson describes is small enough to fit in a drawer, and directly stimulates the human nervous system. While Gibson’s vision is beyond the reach of today’s technology, it is nonetheless possible, today, to achieve many of the effects to which Gibson alludes. A number of companies and organizations are actively developing the essential elements of a cyberspace deck (though not everyone has adopted the term “deck”). These groups include NASA, University of North Carolina, University of Washington, Artificial Reality Corp., VPL Research, and Autodesk, along with numerous others who are starting new R&D programs.”

The objects that authors like William Gibson craft through words are kinds of designed objects that help fill out the vision, inciting conversations, providing backdrops, set pieces and props. The Cyberspace Deck. Gibson wrote about it and it had a story that was compelling enough that it may as well be built. The written objects creates a goal line, a critical path toward the successful completion of the VR mythos. Together, the linkages that connect fact and fiction are ways of filling in that shared imaginary, which then knits the social formations of everyone and everything together. Bruno Latour would remind us that this is the socialization of objects. Technology is precisely the socialization of ideas via object proxies. You don’t need to look much further than this VR anecdote to appreciate how technology is always already the assemblage of social practices. It happens in the circulation of ideas and stories that draw in a multitude of perspectives, and ways of expressing the imagination, from circuit diagrams to galactic adventures.

In 2009 Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell write “‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing.” This essay does something quite bold in that it looks at the collective imagination of the Ubicomp field (scientists, researchers, and so on but, curiously, not its objects and props and prototypes) alongside of the science fiction imaginary as seen through a number of science fiction shows (Dr.Who, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Blake’s 7 and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) that are arguably part of the shared history of Ubicomp researchers. They make an important argument in the context of design fiction that the narrative themes and cultural implications within the science fiction stories are properties that participate in design practices whether you like it or not. These themes are only in science fiction in their examples because they are largely ignored and considered irrelevant in most technological design practices. But allowing these themes to “participate” in technological design has value to the design practice and its methodology.

[Image:fanart – Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, 1975]
Fan art evolved to the point of speculating about the technical particulars of props from science fiction is found in these diagrams from The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, by Franz Joseph (1975) a technical artist and designer who worked during the day for General Dynamics. Joseph’s technical fan art translates the science fiction into a kind of science fact to the extent that he considers the materialization of the various artefacts. Patterns are given for constructing the Star Fleet uniforms worn within the science fiction. Architectural diagrams are drafted for the space ships. Regulation patterns for fleet colors and banners are specified. Organization charts for command and operational hierarchies are mapped out. There are design schematics for technologies that only exist in the science fiction.

Culture “embeds”, as it always must. There is no pure instrumentality in technologies, or sciences for that matter. The arrival of an idea, or concept, or scientific “law” comes from somewhere, never “out there” but always rather close to home. Bell and Dourish are telling us this in their essay using the particular example of Ubicomp. Ubicomp endures its own cultural specificity and debt to things like desire for specific near futures that are given an aspiration portrait in, first of all, the imaginative vision of Mark Weiser[4] and, second of all, some good old fashioned near future science fiction. They are both techniques for connecting the dots between dreams, the imagination, ideas and their materialization as “shows” that talk about the future, exhibit artifacts and prototypes. Those “shows” can take the form of a television production, film, laboratory activity, research reports, annual gatherings of die-hard fans at Ubicomp conferences and Star Trek conventions, and so on. They’re all swirling conversations that are expressions of a will, desire, creativity and materiality around some shared imaginaries.

Bell and Dourish are reminding us that the implications of culture are not something that happens after design. They are always part of the design. They are always simultaneous with the activity of making things. The culture happens as the design does. This is in every way what design is about. It is less about surfaces and detailing, and perhaps only about making culture. Making culture is that things-designed become part of the fabric of our lives, shaping, diffracting, knitting together our relations between the other people and objects around us. Making culture is something that engineering has so effectively and, at times, dangerously pushed out of view, which is why design should participate more actively and conscientiously in the making of things. Engineering tends to start with specifications, assuming that terse instrumentalities and operating parameters evacuate the cultural implications. Design brings culture deliberately. It’s already there, this culture thing — design is just able to provide the language and idioms of culture, a language which engineering has long ago forgotten. Social or cultural “issues” or “implications” are always already part of the context for design. These are not issues that arise from a technical object once it is delivered to people, as if this act of putting an object in someone’s hands then somehow magically transforms it into something that, now set loose to circulate in the wild cultural landscape, produces “issues” or creates implications. It is the case that the social or cultural questions are always already part of the operational procedures of the engineering work, never separate. One need only look at specifications and read closer than the surface to see where an how “culture” is the technical instrument. Despite the fact that it looks like a bunch of circuits and lifeless plastic bits, there is culture right there.

[1] Ubicomp: (ubicomp) is a post-desktop model of HYPERLINK “” human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities. In the course of ordinary activities, someone “using” HYPERLINK “” ubiquitous computing engages many computational devices and systems simultaneously, and may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so. This model is usually considered an advancement from the HYPERLINK “” desktop paradigm and also described as pervasive computing or HYPERLINK “” ambient intelligence

[2] Deigesis: a narrative or plot, typically in a movie

[3]David A. Kirby, “Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development” forthcoming in Social Studies of Science, a journal.

[4] Mark D. Weiser (July 23, 1952 – April 27, 1999) was a chief scientist at HYPERLINK Xerox PARC in the United States. Weiser is widely considered to be the father of HYPERLINK ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988. Mainly through his piece HYPERLINK The Computer for the 21st Century” – HYPERLINK Scientific American Special Issue on Communications, Computers, and Networks, September, 1991

! – This essay is primarily based on “Design Fiction” by Julian Bleecker published online at the Near Future Laboratory: HYPERLINK “”

Design Fiction: From Props to Prototypes (2010 01SJ Biennial Catalog Essay)

Build Your Own World Catalog

Here’s my short catalog essay that appeared in the 2010 01SJ Biennial Catalog. It’s just a little thing, but I want to mark it here for my own records for when something gets lost.

Design Fiction: From Props To Prototypes

Franz Joseph was an expert technical draftsman working in the aerospace industry in Southern California during the heady, Skunkworks days of the 1970s. He started a special project — so advanced that it taunted belief. To call it “high tech” missed the mark by a few hundred years. The designs he was creating were beyond anything that had been done before. Laboring without the aid of today’s sophisticated illustration and computer-aided design systems, Joseph created a set of technical documents from the future, diagramming the details of technology so advanced and of such sophistication that the possibility of its existence teetered between fact and fiction. In 1976, it was a New York Times best selling book.

Joseph’s Technical Manual was a DIY shop manual for the science fiction world of Star Trek. It was a service and repair guide for tricorders, warp drive engine rooms and phasers. Joseph used his practical skills as a draftsman to extend the science fiction of Star Trek, telling his own sorts of stories about Star Trek through diagrams and schematics. In his drawings he played with our minds, entertaining us by blurring the broad line between fact and fiction.

A world with a Technical Manual has complex, fragile technology like tricorders and communicators and captain’s chairs that gets used by people and breaks down and needs repair. This is where we begin to realize that even technical diagrams of science fiction props can help us imagine these devices in use. Like buried artifacts found in an archeological dig from the future, we are left to fill in the gaps and knit together the stories suggested by the peculiar objects he drew. This is precisely what the Star Trek Technical Manual does quite powerfully and evocatively — it provides fuel for the imagination, making one think of a workbench somewhere in the year 2300 where a scrawny technician is puzzling over an intermittently functioning anabolic protoplaser or universal translator. Even fantastic technology has its ordinary, broken down moments.

Making the extraordinary ordinary is a recurring genre convention for science fiction. Because of its creative elasticity, sci-fi is able to make strange, implausible ideas mundane and everyday. The Technical Manual does precisely this, making the unreal seem real, even routine and plain.

A favorite viral example of this sort of reality effect is Michael Horn’s short film “Death Star over San Francisco” in which the Empire visits San Francisco during Fleet Week. We see the almost banal spectacle of an Imperial Trooper, 10 meters up on an AT-ST, poking his head out of the hatch and coaxing a passerby to toss up something they’ve dropped on the street, perhaps the keys to start the walker. Elsewhere we see a transport making a landing on the roof of an apartment building, as ordinary as anything you might see around San Francisco. The footage is rough and un-produced, with off-camera banter about barbecues and the rustle of wind on a microphone, clearing the way for us to imagine this as the product of an everyday tourist out and about during a holiday weekend. Another example of a similar kind of reality effect is filmmaker Floris Kaayk’s fictional documentary “Metalosis Maligna.” Kaayk “documents” a disease that arises from the widespread proliferation of metal implants. Visually, it plays tricks on us, forcing us to consider the reality of this condition. By using the conventions of the documentary — talking head experts, dramatic footage of people suffering horrific metal lattices protruding from their bodies, reserved voice over commentary, and so on — we are drawn into the possibility of this slightly sinister malignancy. Our willingness to accept a strange, otherworldly circumstance is heightened by the visually compelling short story.

The simple brilliance of these short films are similar to Joseph’s specific kind of diagrammatic creative story telling. They all teeter playfully between fact and fiction. These design fictions stretch the constraints of reality by taking the genre conventions of holiday videos or technical drawing and using these conventions to unassumingly fill out the contours of a slightly real, slightly fictional world. They allows for a different kind of engagement with a speculative idea. They draw it out, specifying it “as if” it were part of the world already. The Technical Manual, like “Death Star over San Francisco” lives somewhere in between speculation and materialization, in between an idea and that idea put in the hand to ponder over and consider. The fiction comes off the screen just a bit and gets closer to reality. The props become imminent, forcing one to consider to look sideways and consider that things could be otherwise.

In this way, the Technical Manual makes me think about new ways of making, creating and prototyping. It would be useful in the design world to prototype things in a way that help us imagine and wonder, and consider unexpected, perhaps transformative alternatives. Rather than the canonical technical prototype that operates as an engineering proof of feasibility, what about prototypes that are more like props? Material things, off the page and in the hand that help tell a story or start a conversation

This kind of prototype has nothing to prove — they do not represent technical possibility. They are prototypes that give shape and form and weight to one’s imagined idea. This is a kind of prototyping that couples the speculation inherent in design with the creative license of fiction and the pragmatic, imminent reality of fact. Tangible, materialized props that live in between fact and fiction and are both speculative and possible. They aren’t specifications for making, but they are specifications for imagining. These are prototypes that express possibility more powerfully than either fact or fiction could do if they were each left to their own intellectual and creative provinces. This deliberate blurring of fact and fiction is what we have been calling “design fiction.” Fiction borrowing from fact and thereby rethinking and re-imagining what may be possible.

Design fiction is a way to speculate seriously. It’s not quite brainstorming, nor is it ideating. It is design that tells stories. It creates material artifacts that force conversations and suspend one’s disbelief in what could be. It’s a way of imagining a different kind of world by outlining the contours, rendering the artifacts as story props, then using them to imagine. The prototyping activates the idea, giving it a few material features and some density, and forcing the refinement that comes from making something.

That in-between is what Joseph captures in his design-fiction mechanical drawings. The sparseness of words contrasts with the drawing details in such a way that we are forced to wonder about the implicit sophistication of these devices. Are they real? Where and when did this manual come from? These questions are forced upon the reader to interpret. This is the seduction of design-fiction at its best. The reader has to fill in the gaps and in the filling-in of gaps, we are made to imagine and wonder. And with these questions evolves a conversation that does not stop simply at the pragmatic, and does not dismiss as silly or impossible the fruits of imagining.

Mike Horn Death Star Over San Francisco

Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, Franz Joseph (short link to book)

Floris Kaayk’s Metalosis Maligna

Marjolijn Dijkman Wandering through the future (2007)

Bruce Sterling’s Design Fiction Category List:

Near Future Laboratory Design Fiction Chronicles Category List

Near Future Laboratory Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction

SXSW Design Fiction Panel Audio

Continue reading Design Fiction: From Props to Prototypes (2010 01SJ Biennial Catalog Essay)

Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction


A couple of years ago, in a small discussion group while I was teaching at USC, Paul Dourish presented an early draft of a paper he and Genevieve Bell were working on. If you read this blog, you probably know the paper. It’s called ” ‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing.” It’s a wonderful paper for a number of reasons. What is most wonderful, for the purposes of this dispatch, is the clever way the paper creates a conceptual linkage through science-fiction-ubiquitous-computing. The idea that “science fiction does not merely anticipate but actively shapes technological futures through its effect on the collective imagination” and “Science fiction visions appear as prototypes for future technological environments” — well..this is really juicy stuff.

(Their paper is generally around in draft form, for better or worse, thanks to the Google. It’s forthcoming in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, which is generally only readily available to academics and researchers with access to pricey journals.)

Paul asked myself and a number of people to consider writing something like a response or further considerations kind of thing that could sit alongside the article’s publication. I started in on this last summer. Ultimately, for reasons that became clear as I was writing the essay, I decided that there would be more to be said than would be tolerated in a staid, expensive, peer-reviewed academic journal, never mind that there could possibly be a wider conversation beyond the ubicomp community as my thinking ran into film, design, fan culture and unanticipated other places.

The short bit I wrote ended up as “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction.” It’s available as a downloadable PDF, out there in the on The Near Future Laboratory’s modest puff of Internet Cloud. (Its various incarnations as slideshows and talks can be found here on Slideshare.)



Schematics and parts list for the Star Trek communicator from the original series, of course. Speculation and imagination beyond the surface, imagining a more fully realized near future world. From Franz Joseph. 1975. Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual.


What is this all about?

Extending this idea that science fiction is implicated in the production of things like science fact, I wanted to think about how this happens, so that I could figure out the principles and pragmatics of doing design, making things that create different sorts of near future worlds. So, this is a bit of a think-piece, with examples and some insights that provide a few conclusions about why this is important as well as how it gets done. How do you entangle design, science, fact and fiction in order to create this practice called “design fiction” that, hopefully, provides different, undisciplined ways of envisioning new kinds of environments, artifacts and practices.

I don’t mean this to be one of those silly “proprietary practices” things that design agencies are fond of patenting. This is much more aspirational than that sort of nonsense. It’s part an ongoing explanation of why The Near Future Laboratory does such peculiar things, and why we emphasize the near future. The essay is a way of describing why alternative futures that are about people and their practices are way more interesting here than profit and feature sets. It’s a way to invest some attention on what can be done rather immediately to mitigate a complete systems failure; and part an investment in creating playful, peculiar, sideways-looking things that have no truck with the up-and-to-the-right kind of futures. Things can be otherwise; different from the slipshod sorts of futures that economists, accountants and engineers assume always are faster, smaller, cheaper and with two more features bandied about on advertising glossies and spec sheet.

Design Fiction is making things that tell stories. It’s like science-fiction in that the stories bring into focus certain matters-of-concern, such as how life is lived, questioning how technology is used and its implications, speculating bout the course of events; all of the unique abilities of science-fiction to incite imagination-filling conversations about alternative futures. It’s about reading P.K. Dick as a systems administrator, or Bruce Sterling as a software design manual. It’s meant to encourage truly undisciplined approaches to making and circulating culture by ignoring disciplines that have invested so much in erecting boundaries between pragmatics and imagination.


The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a professional science fact organization, considers the way Arthur C. Clarke and 2001: A Space Odyssey has contributed to space travel in their April 2008 newsletter. Well worth the read for revealing the entanglements of science, fiction and fact.
AIAA Houston Section newsletter, April 2008.


When you trace the knots that link science, fact and fiction you see the fascinating crosstalk between and amongst ideas and their materialization. In the tracing you see the simultaneous knowledge-making activities, speculating and pondering and realizing that things are made only by force of the imagination. In the midst of the tangle, one begins to see that fact and fiction are productively indistinguishable.

Design is about the future in a way similar to science fiction. It probes imaginatively and materializes ideas, the way science fiction materializes ideas, oftentimes through stories. What are the ways that all of these things — these canonical ways of making and remaking and imagining the world — can come together in a productive way, without hiding the details and without worrying about the nonsense of strict disciplinary boundaries?

Wednesday March 11 2009, 195455

How did William Shatner change the world? If you’re wondering, allow yourself to enjoy the remarkable, campy and entertaining documentary (of sorts) called How William Shatner Changed the World Science fact and science fiction are given a good stir in this show, which explores “the science behind the science-fiction of Star Trek.” Whereas Joseph’s technical fan art translates the science fiction into a speculative science fact, this short, campy docu-film follows William Shatner, playing William Shatner, trotting about the world pointing to the ways that Star Trek influenced real, science fact in the world today. We see interviews with real people — scientists and technologists mostly — who have anecdotal stories about how Star Trek inspired their breakthrough ideas, or provided a backdrop near future imaginary for their aspirational thinking.


Saturday April 23 1994, 000000

The intermingling of science, fact, fiction, production is exhibited on this ancient cover of Time Magazine, 14 years ago during the last Jurassic Park (the movie) dinosaur craze. (Read this closely: it contains truth, a science, a film, a correction to your grade school knowledge, and special effects made props/prototypes of science.) Curious crosstalk between science fiction and science fact, genetics, science politics and museum exhibition design was energized by this Spielberg/Crichton/Horner collaboration. Horner? Who? He is the swaggering outlaw paleontologist hired on by Spielberg to serve as a technical consultant – who was also the basis for the thinly veiled Sam Neil character called Alan Grant in the film. He held a controversial theory that dinosaurs were more bird-like than previously thought. This was a minority view in the paleontology (the science) community. But, with the film and his participation as a science consultant, it was a view that became bolstered way behind the possibilities of peer-review, patient experimentation, annual science convention discussions and scholarly arguments. If you need more convincing that the science of fact and the science of fiction are all tangled up, and can be productively intertwined, read on.


Thursday July 03, 03:04:17

Aspire, imagine, make the future you want.


I’ve written more about this, from some conversations with friends and colleagues last fall. It’s here, in this PDF called “Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction.” It started at that discussion group with Paul in 2005 or 2006, and evolved into something I presented last fall at the Design Engaged ’08 workshop in Montreal, then the SHiFT 08 conference in Lisbon last October, then at the Moving Movie Industry conference, finally at the O’Reilly ETech 2009 conference.

Subsequently, this topic has been taken up in a variety of forms and venues. Bruce Sterling has a wonderful essay on the topic in the ACM Interactions journal. And I organized a panel at South by Southwest 2010. with Bruce, Sascha Pohflepp, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagen with Jennifer Leonard doing an excellent job of wrangling and moderating. (The video should be available in a month or so from mid-March 2010.)

By request, here is a Design Fiction Printable Edition that will print on normal, human paper, to scale on 8.5×11.

Why do I blog this? A written kind of design provocation. For the last several months, there’s been a bit more word cobbling than wire soldering. The two practices contribute to the same set of objectives, which is to make and remake the world around us, provide new perspectives and evolve a set of principles that help make the making more imaginative, more aspirational.
I should also add that, when I was writing my master’s thesis on Virtual Reality some time ago (it’d have to be ‘some time ago’ for that topic), I wrote about science fiction meeting science fact, which was some of the earliest inspiration for this work, shared by the laboratory imaginary of the grad student “cyberfreaks” in the University of Washington HITLab and our reading/re-reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer during the early 1990s. Not just Neuromancer but all kinds of science fact/fiction. The simultaneity of the science fiction and the military science fact that was the first Gulf War. I wrote about that, too, because I was being taught by the guy who made that military technology, which was an unpleasant experience, but one from which I learned a great deal about how fact and fiction can swap properties. That same curiosity led to further interest in visual stories and their role in understanding and making sense of the world around us, especially in science fiction film and video games. I wrote a dissertation on this, studying with Donna Haraway, err..when I was a young lad in 1993-95. Therein was a chapter on Jurassic Park as simultaneously science fact and fiction. We had plenty of lively discussions specifically on this film. (Sarah Franklin was visiting at UCSC then and wrote some really amazing stuff about science fiction and genetics out of that, back in the late 90s that appears in “Global Nature, Global Culture.”) There was a seminar paper I did on “Until the End of the World”, looking at the Sony Design concepts Wim Wenders used to create a compelling science fact within the science fiction diegesis. In there was one of the earliest bits of video game commentary (SimCity 2000) from a critical theory perspective, not that I care about ordinality, but some folks seem to. There was a chapter on the SGI Reality Engine, ILM and Special Effects in science fiction (mostly Jurassic Park, which brought me to David Kirby’s early work – he’s the guy who coined this phrase ‘diegetic prototypes’, btw) and science fact showing the techniques and technologies that allow media to cross from fiction to fact. And so on. In many ways, this essay is a continuation of these interests and one I share with a great deal of friends, colleagues and complete strangers, I’m sure. Lots of people are playing around in here, excitedly and eagerly swapping ideas and stories. It’s a conversation that’s usually quite energetic and fun. If the ideas herein intersect and entangle with yours, it means you’re a healthy, creative individual, aspiring for a better near future we all hope to one day to live within. It’s a waste of my time to say things like — yes, I’m working on that. Yes, I have been working on this while you were in grammar school. And to do this every time someone mentions something you are also thinking on? That’s just preposterous. I used to do that with students, or point out to them someone who has also been working on something they think they have thought about for the first time. Inevitably, for the younger students who think they’re the only ones in the world who thought about such-and-so idea — they shrink and pout and get petty and don’t realize that they are in a world of ideas and their uniqueness is in the doing, not the clamoring to be Sir Edmund Hillary climbing that hill for the first time. That’s an ancient, sick model of intellectual and creative cultural production. It’s a world of circulation these days, with knots and rhizomes and linkages between lots of activities.
And that’s all I have to say about that.

Technologies of Kindness and Cruelty


Ack. This is one that drives me a little batty. Technology — friend or foe? Well, neither, of course. It’s how the technology is used that determines its normative dimensions. Right?


Even in the world of clever, insightful, creative art-technology, you get practitioners saying things like this about RFID.

I’m not any more optimistic or worried about RFID than any other technology out there. Humans are capable of great kindness and cruelty. That is independent of any technology.

(From Regine’s interview with Doria Fan about her quite nice RFID-based objects. The full interview is here:

Why are such binaries even erected? They end up diminishing the fact that “technology” is a human endeavor always. It is no more independent of “humans” or social practice than anything else in the world that gets given meaning in our own terms. Is it just a technology without any human participation? Did it just up an appear in the world like an anonymous fart in the wind? Can you really be no more optimisitic or worried than anything that actually moved you to create? C’mon..get a hold of yourself.

Run the list. Nature? Did it just appear? Nothing that pre-exists us, despite what the atavists would like to believe. It’s entirely constituted and given meaning through our construction of knowledge about it (“science”); through the desire to relate, offset, contrast, etc. ourselves and our lives to it (“things would be better/worse if we ‘returned’ to nature”). And so on.

One consequence of believing that technology is independent of human social practice is that you loose track of the story about who is creating these things, for what purpose and with what consequence to their ability to shape and remake the world. If you don’t tell that story, you have not done your work. You don’t share credit with who is effectively your collaborators. You can no longer ignore their influence on your work than you could ignore the way your peers and mentors shape and make what you do possible. The story does not need to be an indictment, but it is a story without which the work done would not be possible.

Another consequences of believing that technology is independent of human social practice is that you loose your seat at the design table. You end up waiting for someone else (or some weird, independent machine that contains no humans, no beliefs, no ideologies and no selfish or selfless aspirations) to create things that you’ll then complain about, or accept blindly or love.

Technology? How can it be seen as something independent of the practice of humans? Did, say, RFID drop out of the sky one day? No. A bunch of very smart people got together and starting fussing with an idea they had. And they materialized it. They enrolled a bounty of powerful players in various industries and political lobbies and so forth to make it bigger than life. They talked to lots of people in manufacturing to try and figure out how to make millions and millions of various kinds of RFID tags, and detectors. They worked through standards for construction and allocation of identification codes, etc. People wrote books — technical books, trade books, warning books, instructional books.

How is this independent of human capabilities to do great kindness or great cruelty?

The greatest possible damage that can be done vis-a-vis technology and making more habitable, sustainable worlds is to imagine that technology is independent of human capabilities to do good or bad things. To say that technologies are value neutral and then say that it is how we use that particular technology misses the strongest possible case for justifying the occasionally provocative linking of art with technology. That is, to show how our things can be other than they are.

To disrupt the assumption that technologies are not made from often complex social-political-ideological-financial assemblages of the human kind. They may seem “trans-human” — as in a complex web of ideas, politics, money, far-flung manufacturing empires, overwhelmingly enormous projects, powerful financial enterprises all out of proportion to individual humans. But you cannot ever trace this without finding individual humans. Whether the gal on the factory floor hand-assembling some part that machines cannot. Or a venture capitalist in his fancy Freedom chair deciding whether it’ll be go or no-go for a new endeavor. These decisions and practices and hand-work are done for reasons and reasons are backed by normative assessments — what is this “thing” good for?

The disruptor — the art-technology creative, sometimes — is able to untangle what has been knotted together into a specific purpose. Perhaps we should call this person the denoer. The person who untangles knotty assemblages. It can be easier or hard to do the unknotting. Look at the edges and the fraying end-points, like this Google Advertisement. It shows pretty clearly who is participating and for what reason.

This is why “we” lobby for open instrumentalities, open-source, open-APIs, legible toolkits/communities. It’s so that the knot of influences that shape devices for particular purposes can be re-tied to say something else. And this process is much more about retying, about constituting a specific and perhaps different assemblage that is constituted based on a different set of normative goals.

But, the technology was never independent. RFID didn’t just grow from the ground. When you believe that, you loose the deep, human influences and political complexities that are latent within such things. You also loose track of all the problematic implications of new materialized ideas. You give up the possibility of changing or influencing what empires of human will do in fact create such things as RFID, and influencing them in a normative way — that is, influencing them to make things that do not scare you.

Art-technology is not only for the gallery. In fact, the gallery is no more than the first step in the influence creative practices should have in the endeavor of creating new feature sets for the worlds we occupy. Galleries are like Class 1 clean rooms for new ideas. These ideas should materialize in more rugged, designed form that purposely leak out into the world. Shame on the creative technologist who assumes their end-goal should be a gallery show. They should be aspiring to shape their ideas into something that influences or even creates a new enterprise that turns their ideas into world-changing/world-shaping designs that shape and influence and create more habitable, playful, sustainable worlds. Otherwise, it’s all empty ego.

Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that technology is not synonymous and deeply, inextricably imbricated with the social practice. Ever. You give up everything.
Continue reading Technologies of Kindness and Cruelty

Crossing all the wires: Cultural Engineering and Electrical Theory?


In order to do interdiscplinary work, it is not enough to take a ‘subject’ (a theme) and to arrange two or three sciences around it. Interdisciplinary study consists of creating a new object, which belongs to no one. Roland Barthes in “The Rustle of Language”(1)

With a background in multiple disciplines, it’s been an ongoing search to find a comfortable place where my practical and professional interests can operate. In most situations, one or more are either surpressed, discouraged or hidden to the point of not even mentioning this or that expertise. (Witness, as I did recently, several versions of my “human resources” style resume that does not mention a Ph.D.)

Under what circumstances might one be in a position to be un-disciplined? Another way of saying — how can a diversity of expertises, approaches, points-of-view and perspectives become actionable means for shaping material culture beyond the conventions that disciplinary norms enforce. By disciplinary norms, I mean the carefully plotted points-of-view and networks of knowledge (épistémè) creation and circulation that allow specific ways of “doing work” rather than others. Ways of doing work is a broad way of stating that disciplines are defined by what can be said, written, constructed, explained — and specifically by what instrumental, creative and normative means that is accomplished. Like the tradecrafts, there are well-defined things that specific disciplines take as “their problem” and their approach to defining and working on what that discipline stakes out as their problems.

Engineers, to be vague, have specific problems that they take on. Designing more energy efficient, green-disposable power sources, for example. Things get confusing if an engineer decides to work outside of, or stretch the boundaries of, their discipline, say by prioritizing the aesthetic rather than instrumental functionality of a circuit board design.

This ongoing search took me through enough disciplined environments to know that disciplinary work practices are far too efficient for innovation. Every gear in enterprise knows perfectly well what it’s supposed to do and what the linkages around it are meant to do to couple the system into a smooth, producing machine. If a gear decides that it’s going to start operating like a cam — well, that just can’t happen.

What do you do with an engineer’s obsession with making things and a cultural theorists passion for deeply understanding all the crazy new ways we have for creating, circulating and making culture? And what do you do when you want to cross all the wires and make cultural engineering projects with engineered theory?

Step 1. Pretend you don’t have a doctorate and just engineer stuff. Just make digital things and shrug absently when people ask you what you mean when you make off-hand references to Goffman and Foucault.

Step 2. Art-technology. The “Art” prefix — it opens up the possibility for discussions about culture to be invested in engineering work, which is a terribly brilliant and deceptively simple work-around. Ideally, at best, it allows the engineering of technology to be understood as a cultural practice, which it always has been. The hyphenation is a band-aid though for what should evolve into an entirely distinct undisciplined approach to materializing ideas beyond the confines of routine “product” manufacturing. What I mean is, in one scenario that would be awesome to consider, things-made are not least-common denominator sorts of routine objects. They are rich in their diversity and provoke one to curiosity, encourage new perspectives or ways of seeing the world. Rather than seeing the world as a place to be exhaustively photographed, for example, and making zillions of subtly varying but essentially identical digital cameras and shoving them in anything (like telephones) that do not already have cameras — what sorts of things-made would encourage me to do something else exhaustively — like monitor my consumption of unrenewable resources, for example?

I spent years in the dot-com where there was at least a small bit of opportunity space for exploring strange, new ideas with multi-talented and multi-disciplinary groups. I had a committed and earnest foraging within the art-technology world that the largesse of bloated dot-com enterprises bolstered.

I would like to go to the CES show one year and catalog as an explorer to a new land might, the product phylum. Would it be diverse and thick, or unsettingly flat and repetitive — “things that play sound”, “things that play sound and are black”, “things that play sound, are black, and also make telephone calls”.

Step 3. Academia. This could be a place — it turns out it isn’t, I’m just saying — where rigorous interdisciplinarity is practiced. My realization of the challenges here are best described with a story. One day early on I walked across campus to the engineering quad to see about using the machine shop there. There was one of those “we’ll be back” style clocks that indicated a short window of opportunity to get ahold of someone in there. I think it was about four hours a day. The doorbell to the shop door had been removed so I had to knock hard on the door. The knocking was answered by a shop guy. When I explained I was a professor from just across campus at another school, he only said — “I don’t know if we’re supposed to work with you.”

I knew what he meant — there was probably some allocation of resources from budget centers or whatever the hell, and that meant that there were only certain ways he could get paid, based on hours worked on specific job numbers or something similar. That’s the practical side of it. But, the systemic side is that, despite the lofty words in university presidents’ addresses, the institutions themselves have epic inertial forces that will not make them anything close to interdisciplinary. Definitely not when the research agendas from major support centers (Microsoft, NSF, Google) emphasize research that is strictly “pure” — a keyword for “back to basics” style disciplinarity. So long as universities have “schools” containing disciplines, their politics and squabbles and mud-wrestling over who gets what money and requisitions for jobs and crap — interdisciplinarity will remain a useful meme for five-year master plans and the like. What a mess.

I’m a bit skeptical these days about what interdisciplinarity is meant to accomplish, or has been able to accomplish. My criticism is that one sees work that has disciplinary terrains butting up against each other, and nothing transformative or unexpected. You can see the “statistics” influence with the “art component” — data visualization, for example, that creates meaning and has a refreshing legibility over pie charts, for example. In my mind there are entirely new practice idioms to be discovered that interdisciplinary won’t find. Interdisciplinarity creates hyphenated practices — art-technology; data-visualization. What I hope for are undisciplined ideas that transcend and create entirely new practices, new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing.

Academia was supposed to be the place where rigorous interdisciplinary practice can thrive, or at least be explored as a possible new way of creating and circulating culture of all sorts. This was a naive expectation, but I suspected a certain degree of naivity on my part. It’s difficult to get things done and expensive when you are able to find support. I enjoy quick sketches of ideas, rather than drawn out, epic, multi-year projects. I tend to work with very light infrastructures that do not need huge overheads. The Near Future Laboratory projects entail a few people, a computer or two, some low-cost components, writing our own code, open-source kits. There are no cyclotrons or gene sequences or tons of beakers and bunsen burners or huge administrative staffs or someone at the top who taxes your hard work by taking overhead expenses or anything.

I’ll just bullet the serious challenges academia poses to The Near Future Laboratories way of getting stuff done:

* Disciplinary despite the lip-service given to interdisciplinary. But even interdisciplinary is bunk — lots of walls exist on the ground, and interdisciplinarity is flawed philosophically.

* Innovation for me means probing existing boundaries, frameworks, ways of seeing the world, understanding for porousness. Disciplinarity hates porous borders.

* There’s little interest in probes and sketches. It’s either an epic project or nothing at all. The short incursions don’t count for much. I find them invigorating.

* You end up publish/sharing your work to about 500 people. At a pay-per-view conference that costs about $3000 to attend, all-in. I get more single-user visits on a blog post for a three weekend project that costs me $300 out-of-pocket to put together. No kidding. The old publishing/circulating practice is a dead skunk. And that it counts for “more” on the resume than knitting together new practice communities, developing soft toolkits through your blog and sharing insights, ideas and work as it happens rather than 8 months later — that just doesn’t make sense. And most of it is perpetually locked away in institutional journals that no one without a university affiliation will likely ever, ever see. No wonder academics question their relevancy — their institutions are still in the 19th century.

* You get peer reviewed by people who literally are not your peers.

* 36% overhead tax on every dollar you bring in to do your work.

Enough said.


Step 4. Design-Technology. That episode at the machine shop door emphasized the intractable nature of practicing undisciplined creative work in a setting with well-policied disciplinary schools. Some time after this episode, I happened to be at Art Center College of Design. There, while walking to a student’s studio, I came across their shop. It was a hive of activity — lots of students working on stuff. Shop supervisors were around and seemed eager to assist students. Most of all, I was drawn to the openness of the shop. It ran along a long corridor with a window showing you what was going on inside. It was a strong contrast to the other shop..with the door and the removed doorbell and the four hours a day of access.

Seeing this shop made me think about design — something about which I had only the barest of knowledge. I don’t really know what design is, other than the idea that there are designers who design things. There are practices like industrial design, furniture design, lighting design, and so forth. There are design schools where design is learned and taught. But, something was going on here, as I saw just on the surface in this shop. Things were being made; ideas were being explored and probed and materialized here.

Considering design broadly — still without knowing precisely what it is — that experience in early 2006 made me start to consider seriously how I could learn from design to broaden my practice. What was there in design that I could draw from to knit to my history and experience with engineering/technology/art/culture-theory? What would a hybrid, undisciplined design-technology-engineering-art-culture-theory practice look like?

I’m going to find out.
Continue reading Crossing all the wires: Cultural Engineering and Electrical Theory?

What Is Manufacturing in the Era of Design-Art-Technology?

Flavonoid Primitive Sketch

(Essay for Share Festival Catalog 2008)

(Here is my slide presentation, relate to the essay below. But, I did not read this essay at the festival, rather it was printed in the festival catalog.)

There are a few things to say about manufacturing, design and digital arts. First, we’re not talking about manufacturing. Manufacuring is about making things on a large scale using machinery. Manufacturing evokes cavernous, cold, awesomely huge assembly lines with scales all out of proportion to the experiences of mere mortals. Factory floors throwing sparks, littered with metal shavings, huge overhead cranes moving impossibly large masses of steel – this is what manufacturing means. Half million ton crude oil-carrying super tankers are manufactured. The Airbus 380 is manufactured. Millions of Herman Miller Aeron Chairs are manufactured. Billions of cellular phones are manufactured. These things have meaning in the idiom of manufacturing. Manufacturing is the engine of growth and dispair of the 20th century.

If anything, we’re talking about a kind of materialization of ideas. Slick connections between an your imagination, a circuit board and a 3D printer. It’s artful for its scale and personalization. Small-scale, passionate, individual ideas made material. Why is this different from manufacturing? Because manufacturing deals in enormous scales – scales of time, material, logistics, operational fortitude, finances, consumption of natural resources. Ultimately, manufacturing endeavors are impossible imbroglios of spin-doctors and reassurances, speculation, trust and hope as much as they are supply-train logistics and CAD systems. Just ask the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” team. Is it advanced avionics and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic skins or spin-control and renegotiated contracts that’ll make that perpetually delayed endeavor a success?

The sad consequences of manufacturing’s scale is that it defaults to the least common denominator. Manufacturing on a mass scale can only be an effective business enterprise when you make one thing that millions and millions of people are convinced they need to buy. Customization as a manufacturing process has not moved much beyond Henry Ford’s Model T color option – you can have any color, so long as it’s black. An iPod is an iPod is an iPod, hand-painting and laser etching not withstanding. True customization means materializing one’s own designs, one’s own imagination. This is where we begin.


What we are talking about are emerging “materialization” – not manufacturing – processes. What makes it worth talking about is that it is the power of creation that manufacturing is able to achieve, but done at an entirely different scale – quicker, cheaper, individually, with fewer intermediaries and fewer incumberances. This is the crucial element – there are fewer and less awkward hurdles, deals, negotiations and alliances to be formed in the process of materializing an idea. The power of the idea and its “moment” is not lost through the trials of enrolling people, machines, enterprises, financiers into your cause. It’s as if a sketch in a notebook can materialize immediately. No more fumbling around with awkward descriptions of your weird idea – let the material object speak for you.

What else can be said about this different kind of idea-manufacturing? How does it integreate with design and digital arts? It relies on “toolkits” consisting of digital software and hardware, fab machines, CNC “Robodrills” and 3D modeling. As importantly, the toolkits are also the far-flung networked communities of craftspeople and designers, artists and technologists sharing ideas and insights. The practical tradecraft starts from the bottom and works its way up. We’re familiar with the elements of this process, and the activities taking place in various corners of the digital arts and art-technology communities. This is an emerging practice informally taken up by thoughtful designer-tinkerers. It is a practice that will find greater adoption within more formal and conservative design, engineering and art communities as its significance is refined.

The “tooling” for this practice includes open-source firmware for inexpensive microcontroller-based kits like the Arduino; hacked Nintendo Wii controllers; low-cost, rapid-turnaround printed circuit board production houses; free development environments like Processing; online knowledge sharing communities; parts suppliers with no minimum orders, and so forth.


The “manufacturing process” is a kind of extended sketching activity. Ideas are first expressed informally, perhaps with a simple “wouldn’t it be cool if..?” question at a moment of inspiration. But the question should be answered – and it can be, often enough, with a quick pen drawing, some poking around the net for practical answers or to source some parts or other material – perhaps even finding other people who have asked the same question and thereby entering into conversations with all the other similarly inspired folks out there on the networks. In short order a refined, functional technology engine is created using small-scale surface mount printed circuit board techniques so as to fit within the refined contours of a fab’d surface model. Now you have a fully functioning materialization of your idea – much easier to answer that initial question with the real-deal. You can share it, put it in other people’s hands and work through the nuances of your idea.

What does this all mean for an emerging design-art-technology practice? At present, the evidence of something compelling centered around new interactions is indicated by a richly stocked cabinet of curios – expressive artifacts and objects that, like early Net Art, stitch together inputs and create expressive outputs. Only — and this is important – they do so off the computer screen, and with no keyboard and mouse. Rather, these expressive objects form their interactivity around physical actions that may include the Nabaztag’s articulating rabbit-like ears, or Clocky the coy alarm clocks that roll away when you try to hit the snooze button, or Maywa Denki’s punch-drunk dancing BitMan character. These are distinct kinds of digital objects that mix physical space, digital technology and design.

Engelbart Mouse Patent

We know that the art of digital media continues to emphasize the screen, the keyboard, the mouse and the network. The weak signals suggest kinds of design-art-technology that are growing tired of the screen. Digital art is ready to move beyond the confines that Douglas Englebart and his contemporaries created in 1968 with their patent line drawing depicting the now canonical assembly of keyboard, screen and mouse. If there is a “new materiality” to digital arts, it will emphasize material interactions in physical space, embodied experiences and contexts beyond the typically sedentary confines of the screen/keyboard/mouse/network assemblage.

For this new process to do something new, it must become a ployglot practice steered by undisciplinary craftspeople who believe in the possibility of creating fictional, unbelieveable, even preposterous objects that say as much about what they’re moving away from – the uninspired, least-common denominator landfill-destined plastic device – as they say about what sort of near future world we could have. What is emerging is an ability to make your own stuff – not just “skinning” your mobile or modding an MP3 player. Materializing ideas is about making your own – “whatever” – unanticipated, unknow, visionary, expressive things. It is not a manufacturing process. This is a process that requires multiple perspectives and multiple skills thoroughly mixing engineering-design-art into a hybrid sensibility. It is a process that’s strictly for trouble-makers and boundary crossers. Nothing expected and everything unexpected will come from this.

Continue reading What Is Manufacturing in the Era of Design-Art-Technology?

SmartDust — Battlefields and Cornfields

Struck with a heavy irony last night as I was responding to an inquiry about Blogjects, Smart Dust, Smart Technology as might be realized in the year 2030 that Smart Dust has been variously pitched as a something for the battlefield (remotely track enemy troop movements, etc), on the one hand, and the cornfield (measure current environmental conditions, existence of little critters eating crops, etc), on the other. It’s not surprising I suppose, given the intricate web of the military industrial light and magic complex, and the deeply imbricated way in which the socio-technical apparatus has positively soaked through our lives so that you can effortlessly find meaning for things like “Smart Dust” in what you might imagine are entirely different sorts of “fields.”

Left To Our Own Devices (Hardware Sketching..What This Means)


Making our own stuff — what does it mean, how do you do it? There is a sense that the ability to make our own electronic/digital/computational “stuff” is not just fun, but has some larger purpose that’s related to impulses of DIY sensibilities. Making your own devices has a implicit cultural and political message. That is, we can be “productive consumers” as Ruth described yesterday. We can produce the things we need or enjoy or desire based on our own principles, ethics, senses of fun and so forth. This I think is very good, and very important.

Left To Our Own Devices (on SlideShare)


What does this phrase mean, “left to one’s own devices”?


The opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them is crucial to making your own stuff, and developing the skills to think for oneself. This is a mistake I made recently that burned out part of a board. While it was a setback, it was only temporary and in the process, on my own, I learned.

Making mistakes or probing the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t is a powerful way to learn, and, mostly, gain confidence and mastery. So “left to our own devices” also has this sense of learning, or understanding about things that were previously a kind of black art.


And so what does this mean for “sketching in hardware”? I want to suggest three things, or observations that I think describe what “sketching in hardware” is about. Starting at the highest level is “sketching as critique.” I think there’s a kind of creative or cultural criticism that goes on when sketching hardware.


The “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If..” approach to making things. This is design that is driven by the imagination. I notice many projects that suggest this motivation — for instance, it would be cool to have a mobile phone that has no features except to make telephone calls. In fact, it might not even have a display, like an old analog phone. Why do we do this? Part of it is to demonstrate hardware sketching acumen and skills. But I think there’s also an implicit criticism about the way things are that suggests a response. Making things different than they are.


The “What Would The World Be Like If..?” approach to sketching is kind of like writing science fiction by making things that ask what would the world be like if.. These are things that are not necessarily “rational” in the way we often think about rationality. But they are meant to provoke questions about certain aspects of life in the same way that the best of science fiction does. It forces us to consider ourselves and our ways of living by helping us find a partial perspective that is outside of our routine, quotidian lives.

This is the World’s Slowest Instant Messenger, or “Slow Messenger” for short. You can send an instant message to it over, for instance AOL IM, and the message from your buddy will reveal itself over many hours or even days, one character at a time.

Why do this? To imagine what such a world might be like if we communicated slower than we do today. The reason for doing this is more as a thought experiment imagining a different kind of world — either a science fiction world where things are a little different, for instance a world in which slowly unfolding messages are considered a polite, perhaps regal form of exchange, rather than the terse, abrupt, disruptive “fast” mode of communication. It’s also evocative of letter writing traditions, where much time was spent carefully composing a letter that communicated much more than the short message styles of digital exchange. It’s a sci-fi device. But, it needs more than just a story about it — you need to create the device and live with it and share it with people and friends to learn more about the concept.


“Sketching” implies of course making meaning through inscriptions — drawing or writing ideas, as in sketching the outlines of a thought that might be developed further, beyond the inscription. For instance, it might become something slightly more durable and enduring — into something that you can create and share with others. Refinement.



You can easily go from a prototype that’s a bit messy and experimental..Refine that through a more formalized design that starts to close the gap between prototype and an “end product” whatever that might be.


And doing the construction oneself is important — part of the trade craft is a familiarity with the process.



Being done, and refining is a rewarding part of the process of making your own devices.


Creating our own culture of devices is one way of finally ending the myth that there are things called “end products” — it indicates that everything that consumers may consume are always in flux in many terms. I don’t know much about product design, but I do know that designs evolve continuously particularly in the hands of those who are in the cycle of evolving them.


What about toolkits?

1. Need to be crafted carefully so that you don’t have a glut of things that all look a like — the China Syndrome of knock-offs and copied ideas. This is a bad thing except insofar as it teaches fundamentals. When tool-kits become ways to make the same thing over and over again, creativity wanes.


2. Toolkits are not software APIs only. Sparkfun is a toolkit because it provides the resources to learn, not just an interface for connecting to some sort of sensor.Tom Igoe’s a toolkit. is a toolkit. I believe that “Sketching” as we’re talking about it here is a craft, and crafts take time and discipline to master and it can be hard. But that mastery is important to moving toward a position of creative abilities. Tools should not substitute for community engagement. Rather than just using “turnkey” tools at some point you want to participate with the ultimate toolkit — the community.



Human Joystick Interface

Aaron Meyers deployed this turn of phrase “human joystick” during his final presentation for the course I taught this semester — “Design and Technology for Mobile Experiences.” He’s been working hard mostly on his thesis project, Torrent Raiders, but for my class he worked on programming a J2ME version of the MobZombies game that’s been percolating around the Interactive Media Division since 2002.

I’ve been interested in expanding the kinds of interfaces we have to digital worlds, and doing so to explore what computing can mean, besides the kind of computing we assume computing means. My speculation is that, to a significant degree, the “point of entry” defines and shapes what we imagine computing is, and it will not become much more than what it is so long as our point-of-entry are a flat visual display, a small squares of plastic that we push about 2 millimeters, a ball of plastic we swish around a flat surface. It boggles me when I think that this basic setup has been around, little changed, for 15 years, and much longer if you factor the computer mouse out of the framework. Boggles me.

And it’s not for lack of effort. The Wii-style wand concept has been bandied about at any number of professional/academic research contexts. Ten years ago a music conductor’s baton was the concept behind a project that, initially, was designed to control electronic music using conducting gestures. The researcher, Teresa Marrin, became so enamored with the possibility of gesture as a computer-human interface that she saw it not only as a device that could be used as a “new instrument on which to perform computer music” but also as “a model for the design of new interfaces and digital objects.” The interesting thing is that it’s more than a 3D mouse in many regards — it’s usage context is explicit in the object. The hardware is remarkably prescient:

The sensors on the baton include an infrared LED for positional tracking, five piezo-resistive strips for finger and palm pressure, and three orthogonal accelerometers for beat-tracking. Both the infrared sensor and the baton send separate data streams (including values for absolute 2D position, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis orientation, and surface pressure) via cable to the tracking unit, which converts the signals to the computer.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been constructing a sensor prototype that would turn the human into a human joystick for the MobZombies game. It combines a 2-axis gyroscope and 3-axis accelerometer, a microcontroller and a Bluetooth radio to transmit the data to the game display device, a mobile phone. The motivation here is two fold. First, investigate what a mobile game can be, that evokes both traditional playground style pre-digital action. Second, set up a baseline experiment for how computing can move away from the fixed office desk and make use of human body movement as an interface.

If you haven’t seen the “trailer” for MobZombies, I recommend checking it out.


(I’ve always wanted to make one of these specimen style graphics, with the ruler and callouts? You know?)

DIY Wearable Sensor

When I first cobbled the sensor together, I was hoping to use a magnetic compass like the previous version of the game controller used. It was a bit too sensitive to the RF energy created by the Bluetooth radio and I couldn’t easily find a way to separate the two without making a large design or diminishing the capabilities of one or the other. So, I turned to a MEMS gyroscope by InvenSense — the IDG300, which is a fast little gyro. I ran some quick tests which pretty much showed me that it was plenty fast. In fact, I could probably even go slower and maybe use a lower-end unit and save a few scheckles. I quickly cobbled together a bit of code bolted onto Aaron’s J2ME prototype. Turning motion is spot-on, which was a welcome surprise.


The MobZombies human joystick style interface is fun and suggestive more than it is a tectonic shift in how we interface with our devices. But, this style of interface is coming — it’s already here in some contexts. Nokia has introduced the 5500 Sports Phone with integral tri-axis accelerometer. I’ve heard tell of mobile phones that use the camera to detect and interpret motion by computing changes to the visual field. Etc.

MobZombies is a baseline experiment because I’m actually somewhat more interested in how very broad movement can become an interface to what I imagine would be a very different kind of computing than what we have today. Broad as in extended gestures beyond semaphore antics. Why? I would like to re-interpret human activities as fodder for computational expression. But this requires shifting the general notion of what computation is, which will require more than words. It will require some designed objects that express this shift through perhaps what some will see as peculiar usage scenarios.

Why do this? Why shift what computing means? Part of that answer comes from a sense that there must be much more to what “computing can become” than smaller or faster or cheaper. But, specifically in this case, my reason for thinking and doing this is because of this thing that boggles me — that the interface for the instrument that dramatically refashioned the ways in which humans make culture — whether entertainment, leisure, maintaining and acquiring social relationships, waging war, circulating knowledge, knitting together the fabrics of societies — the whole smash..that interface is set up to make you sit down and punch little plastic best. At worst, just sit down and look at a screen. I feels incredibly protozoic. There must be something beyond that computing can become. Why hasn’t that next bit come to pass? Why is “computing” so instrumentalized and so sedentary in this way?

I like to think about an entirely revitalized notion of “mobile computing” that isn’t about a small phone with a relatively powerful computer on which you’re able to run spreadsheets while you’re out and about. I’m wondering about a kind of mobile computing that puts more emphasis on the “mobile” part of that framework, where motion, in the broadest sense, is the computational activity.

1. Teresa, M. Possibilities for the digital baton as a general-purpose gestural interface CHI ’97 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems: looking to the future, ACM Press, Atlanta, Georgia, 1997.

The Military Industrial Light and Magic Complex: Avoiding Ender's Folly

ACE2006 Keynote: The Military Industrial Light and Magic Complex

Keynote talk delivered at the 2006 ACM SIGCHI International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, 14-16 June 2006, Hollywood, California.
Slightly modified from the original Keynote presentation, available here:

Tim Lenoir. 2000. All But War Is Simulation: The Military-Entertainment Complex. Configurations, 8(3), Fall, 2000: 289-335.

Bruce Sterling. 1993. War Is Virtual Hell. Wired, Mar/Apr 1993.

Julian Bleecker. Coherent Light: The Cultural Politics of Virtual Reality. Master’s of Engineering Thesis, University of Washington, Seattle. June 1992.

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military, entertainment, simulation, virtual reality, telepresence, electronic games, electronic entertainment, virtual worlds, ender’s game, orson scott card, ivan sutherland, katamari damacy, fan culture, 1st Life, 2nd Life, computer graphics, world of warcraft, play, playground, alternative games, social impact games, social practice, embodying social practice

The relationship between military and entertainment is well-known and scarcely misunderstood. How has this relationship shaped the production and circulation of entertainment cultures in the early 21st century, wherein digital networked, massively multiparticipatory online games have become social life simulations? Is it possible to learn from the military — eminence in translating 2nd Life experiences (training simulations) into 1st Life action (deployments and operations) so that we breech the 2nd Life/1st Life barrier so as to create tangible actions that mitigate 1st Life catastrophic failure? How can 2nd Life experiences offer productive couplings to 1st Life actions in a way that avoids the dramatic folly of the character Ender from the Orson Scott Card novel Ender’s Game?

ACE2006 Keynote: The Military Industrial Light and Magic Complex

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