Design Fiction at UC Calgary's Environmental Design: A First Go At Design Fiction Genre Conventions

Friday November 19 07:02

From awhile ago, back at the end of last year I went to UC Calgary’s Environmental Design and presented a further iteration of the design fiction business. I realized I hadn’t put down on paper or on this blog some thoughts from the presentation — but mostly thoughts about what design fiction can do.

Just in terms of process, my basic routine is to extend the thinking in steps, using commitments to travel and give a talk or facilitate a workshop as the motivation to move the general thinking a bit further. Where it’s going is oftentimes vague sometimes — but generally it’s just a kind of extending conversation that helps me and I hope others think about the opportunities for collapsing design and science, fact and fiction together into a productive muddle.

In this talk I set the usual frame — placing science fiction alongside of science fact and leveraging David Kirby’s work on the diegetic prototype — the prototype that does more than an engineering or technical or instrumental prototype. ((That may be my emphasis to say that it does more — or a conceit on my part.)) The exemplary diegetic prototype is revealed through Minority Report — the film — and the role that John Underkoffler played in the technical design and technical production of the film’s gestural interface. Despite the challenges of such a system in practice, Underkoffler was able to work through technical issues pertaining to such an interface mechanism through the context of the film’s story. He had a basis upon which the interface would be employed in the future of P.K. Dick’s world of 2050. Moreover the film’s popularity and just its existence provided a way of circulating the concept of this specific kind of gestural interface. The film and the fictional technology that Underkoffler proposed and demonstrated in the film became a way of leveling-up the idea — giving it some exceptional circulation. In effect, the film became the logical extension of the M.I.T. Media Lab’s mantra of demo, demo, demo — or demo-or-die.

This is the stock presentation I’ve given on design fiction. Early on — I think the first time I explicated all this stuff was in Amsterdam where I gave a talk at the Sandburg Instituut Master Course during Halloween in 2008 — I was trying perhaps not successfully to integrate film clips as a way of describing the importance of the story, rather than just objects or props. That is — during that particular presentation in Amsterdam — I showed unusually long film clips. So — the first 3 minutes of Minority Report, for example. Let’s watch that and allow the cool technology to be part of a story that is more about humans as social beings and this lets the tech become social too — it’s not just a doorknob sitting by itself. It’s also a social-instrument, an artefact that has a role to play in this particular drama. What Spielberg is able to do is introduce the technology to us — it’s just a prop — without making the whole film *just about the gesture technology or even the pre-cogs, or the slick environmental advertising, or the jet packs. They are there, of course — but that’s not what the story is about, any more than the Maltese Falcon was about a statue of a falcon from Malta. The statuette was a prop — a way of spinning the story about a couple of crooked crooks.

The purpose was to give a larger context for the gestural interface rather than just its use in the 30 or 40 seconds we see it in the beginning of the film. I wanted to give the device a role and a purpose — an instrument that’s used routinely. I wanted to shift it from being a spectacle to being just an ordinary albeit sophisticated bit of technical kit. Just in the same way that a microscope in a forensics-heavy police procedural television show is not fetishized as a prop or device in that sort of story, neither should be the gestural interface in Minority Report — even though to our eyes as viewers, at least at the first screening, it is quite extraordinary. The point is that the film makes the device quite ordinary and routine. This is John Anderton just going about his business as a savvy, street-smart, afflicted cop. It just happens to be a future world to us, with all its trappings of things extraordinary.

From this I began thinking about the conventions, stylings, idioms and techniques that make the future seem like today. How do you make the extraordinary appear ordinary and quotidian? This seems to be an important way of depicting the future and making it seem possible. It’s just a way of designing — an understatement of perhaps novel, innovative and crazy ideas from the future. Why do this? Because in a way this is part of the work of design innovation. To make something spectacular routine, domesticated (to borrow from James Auger) and perhaps even boring and everyday. When you can do this, you’ve turned a corner into a new space that provides a setting for a kind of innovation that is chaste and modest and thereby, perhaps — entirely possible. This then communicates your innovative, crazy, off-the-hook idea as legible and something which can already be accomplished.

Thursday November 18 15:20

There’s much in the social, cultural and political history of science and innovation on the topic of modesty as a mode of conveying and communicating an idea. Scientists are especially guilty of this mode of communication — behaving only as unadorned and modest presenters of things-as-facts. Just revealing nature as it is. Simon Schaffer and Steven Shapin’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life and especially Schaffer’s A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Science and Its Conceptual Foundations series) speak much on this topic. I think here I’ve internalized their insights and tried to find ways to leverage the modest proposal of a new, speculative idea — as was the air-pump in its time — as a way to communicate it convincingly. In part design fiction is about communicating a new idea, but of course it is also, perhaps mostly, about actually doing design through the modes and idioms of science fiction.

This way of presenting an idea and enrolling people in it is described quite convincingly by Shapin and Schaffer. It’s really an important read in this regard. It’s a great historical book. I seem to re-read it every few years because it’s almost tactical in its description of how ideas become materialized and circulated. It’s certainly much more thorough and convincing than popular surveys of how ideas evolve and develop — I kept thinking about how loosey-goosey Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation end up being for its lack of rigor and its desperate hunt for a simple one-liner — this whole adjacent possible. It reads like a nursery rhyme that forgets that its okay that the world is an intractable complex and entangled place. ((G’aah. I’m all riled up now. I’ll get back to that one later.))

Thursday November 25 09:30
Thursday November 25 09:31

Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. It sounds very vocational, but I find the idea of a catalog of ways of telling visual stories compelling. It would be nice to create a similar sort of thing for design fiction, I think. This is what is next.

Anyway — so what I’m trying to do now with the whole design fiction business is catalog a series of genre conventions — ways in which one can describe an idea or an object or a bit of thinking. How do we show ideas as they would be in the world? Or as they come to be? I’m thinking about mostly visual stories — little films or proper films, but mostly little films because they can be produced, we have a pre-existing language of visual story telling and now I’m convinced that that language can be used to also do the work of designing. What I and others are talking about is using film/visual explications as a means of prototyping and, perhaps more importantly — designing. It shouldn’t be just a way of showing a concept but also a way to feedback into the design process — or it should be a part of the design process, not just a final demonstration. They should be made in such a way that thinking is going on while they are being made. One should pay attention to lessons being taught by the little filmmaking process because effectively, then — you are also doing design, just with fiction which allows more freedom in the explorations.

Why do I blog this? Well — I’m doing a few design fiction workshops later this summer and fall and it seems like film is a viable way to think through how to set the scene for a near future world, or little moment of that world. It would be quite nice to do a workshop that included film making as the “hands-on” work part of the workshop. It actually takes a lot to think through things if you’re making a little movie, even a super little one. But, things get even more intriguing when the making of the film is actually part of the design process itself — allowing the extra work to be more than communicating the idea, but actually informing it quite directly. Some of the little films we’ve made in the studio were exceptionally useful to shape and challenge notions that work quite well in conversation, or on the screen or on big posters. It’s when things go in the hand and become materialized that you start to discover something about the design that needs more help to make its way into people hands.
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Primer: Inexplicable Ideas In Design Fiction

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

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

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

In an interview with the director:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Design Fancies

Just came across this one, via @bruces over on <a href="“>Beyond the Beyond — a series of *design fancies created by Matt Brown which appear to be cleverly fictionalized designers to go along with these designers design fictions. Wonderfully inventive and I could see this sort of thing being quite therapeutic for normal, factual designers. You know — either imagine a colleague, or take a piss on the designer jackhole.

The image above is a book done by this designer — with two editions, one particularly rare.

Kurt Manchild was an author and inventor born in Jackson, MO in 1952.

From a fairly young age Manchild found that he had ridiculously vivid dreams of finished inventions. He spent his teenage years thinking that dreams like this were normal. It wasn’t until the ’72 National Sleep Science Association (N.S.S.A.) convention that he found out his dreams were unique. He spent the next few years talking with bartenders, clergymen, and designers about his deep sleep brainstorms and formed a whole new philosophy. Armed with this knowledge he wrote his first and only book, Silent Brainstorm: Ten Dreams That Every Designer Should Have at Least Once a Week. In the book he describes ways to trick your brain into certain dreams. He writes about the “Garage Sale Dream” where you go to a garage sale and see new products and then wake up and draw them. He also writes a lot about “Museum Dreams” where you would go to a design museum and it would be filled with amazing stuff that again, you would draw out upon waking. His book was a best seller in most of Europe and was available in two editions. The black version is semi-rare.

Why do I blog this? A very intriguing way of constituting an imaginary, design fiction concept. The strength of the imaginary thing — the design fiction — is elevated by the story surrounding it — it’s *backstory or moment of production, including the designer with a personality and a home town and so on. It’s a bit of an intriguing special effect of a sort that I should add to my modest catalog of design fiction genre conventions. Nice work.
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