Thrilling Wonder Stories..London Edition

Thrilling Wonder Stories

WONDER STORIES 3
Live in London and New York Oct 28th

Created by
Liam Young [Tomorrows Thoughts Today]
And Geoff Manaugh [BLDGBLOG]

In Association with the Architectural Association, Studio-X NYC, Popular Science

We have always regaled ourselves with speculative stories of a day yet to come. In these polemic visions we furnish the fictional spaces of tomorrow with objects and ideas that at the same time chronicle the contradictions, inconsistencies, flaws and frailties of the everyday. Slipping suggestively between the real and the imagined these narratives offer a distanced view from which to survey the consequences of various social, environmental and technological scenarios.

Wonder Stories chronicles such tales in a sci fi storytelling jam with musical interludes, live demonstrations and illustrious speakers from the fields of science, art and technology presenting their visions of the near future. Join our ensemble of mad scientists, literary astronauts, design mystics, graphic cowboys, mavericks, visionaries and luminaries for an evening of wondrous possibilities and dark cautionary tales.

For the first time, Wonder Stories will be simultaneously hosted in London and New York and Popular Science will join the Architectural Association and Studio X NYC in coordinating the event this year. Join us for the third event in the series as we chart a course from science fiction to science fact with talks, a hands on taxidermy workshop, animatronic guests, swarm robotics demonstrations, datascapes walking tour and live movie soundscapes.

Free to all. OCT 28 1200 – 2200 at the Architectural Association London and OCT 28/29 at Studio-X NYC

The event will be streamed live streamed here and you can follow the twitter feed with #tws3

Hosted by
LIAM YOUNG (‘Tomorrows Thoughts Today’ and the AA’s ‘Unknown Fields Division’)
MATT JONES (‘BERG London’, Design technologists)

VINCENZO NATALI
Director of Splice, Cube, and forthcoming films based on J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise and Neuromancer by William Gibson

BRUCE STERLING
Scifi author and futurist

KEVIN SLAVIN
Game designer and spatial theorist

ANDY LOCKLEY
Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor for Inception,compositing/2D supervisor for Batman Begins and Children of Men

PHILIP BEESLEY
Digital media artist and experimental architect

CHRISTIAN LORENZ SCHEURER
Concept artist and illustrator for video games and films such as The Matrix, Dark City, The Fifth Element, and Superman Returns

JULIAN BLEECKER
Designer, technologist, and researcher at the Near Future Laboratory

CHARLIE TUESDAY GATES
Taxidermy artist and sculptor, to lead a live taxidermy workshop

DR RODERICH GROSS AND THE ‘NATURAL ROBOTICS LAB’
Head of the Natural Robotics Lab at the University of Sheffield,to lead a live Swarm Robotics demonstration

GAVIN ROTHERY
Concept artist for Moon, directed by Duncan Jones

GUSTAV HOEGEN
Animatronics engineer for Hellboy, Clash of the Titans, and Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film Prometheus

SPOV
Motion graphics artists for Discovery Channel’s Future Weapons and Project Earth

ZELIG SOUND
Music, composition, and sound design for film and television

RADIOPHONIC
Throughout the day we will be accompanied by electronic tonalities from Radiophonic

NEW YORK EVENT

Hosted by
GEOFF MANAUGH (BLDGBLOG, STUDIO-X NYC)
NICOLA TWILLEY (EDIBLE GEOGRAPHY, STUDIO-X NYC)
POPULAR SCIENCE

BJARKE INGELS
Architect, WSJ Magazine 2011 architectural innovator of the year, and author of Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution

NICHOLAS DE MONCHAUX
Architect and author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

HARI KUNZRU
Novelist and author of Gods Without Men and The Impressionist

JAMES FLEMING
Historian and author of Fixing The Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control

ANDREW BLUM
Journalist and author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

DAVID BENJAMIN
Architect and co-director of The Living

MARC KAUFMAN
Science writer and author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth

DEBBIE CHACHRA
Researcher and educator in biological materials and engineering design

JACE CLAYTON AND LINDSAY CUFF OF NETTLE
Nettle’s latest album, El Resplandor, is a speculative soundtrack for an unmade remake of The Shining, set in a luxury hotel in Dubai

CHRIS WOEBKEN
Interaction designer

SETH FLETCHER
Science writer and author of Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy

SIMONE FERRACINA
Architect and author of Organs Everywhere

DAVE GRACER
Insect agriculturalist at Small Stock Foods

HOD LIPSON
Researcher in evolutionary robotics and the future of 3D printing

ANDREW HESSEL
Science writer and open-source biologist, focusing on bacterial genomics

CARLOS OLGUIN
Designer at Autodesk Research working on the intersection of bio-nanotechnology and 3D visualization

[Image credit ‘Inception’ dir. Christopher Nolan]

Weekending 10232011

Okay. Maybe we will get back into the swing of the weekending note. This one won’t be comprehensive, but a note nonetheless to note a few things.

First, something I found while flipping through the Internet that got me thinking about using creative tension and inversion in the design fiction process and also connected to this Anthem Group, which has curious dispatches related to object-oriented ontology (which I barely understand) and Bruno Latour: this was an interesting post on the reason for having “intellectual fiends”. It helps me understand why, when I was studying Science and Technology Studies and just, you know…academic-y “theory” broadly, there was always this impulse to set ideas or discussions in opposition. To find ways to be critical of anything. Which gets annoying and I’m sure is the reason for general pissy-ness in the academic world.

It turns out it has its usefulness, if you stay optimistic and hopeful. It can be a way to move discussions always in some direction rather than allowing them to sit still and suffer the tyranny of undisputed acceptance. Of course, these things would always get quite squirrely — debates and the perpetual state of “crisis” over some theoretical position. That all becomes quite tiresome and you wind up with folks who are never, ever satisfied and always finding an argument to be had.

But, related to present work, it provides a logic for designing by inversion — taking the initial instinct or common assumption and then turning it on its head. I guess things like making physical, “embedded”, full-electronic prototypes rather than “apps” is one way of seeing this. Or doing the creative-opposite of something to really get into the *why of the natural, assumed, expected thing.

For example, when we made the social/trust alarm clock it was a way to invert commonly held assumptions about about the rituals of waking up in the morning. They don’t get inverted because we think the world should be hung upside down by its shoes — at least not routinely. But one can put “the normal” in relief by looking at things from the downside looking back up. Looking sideways. And it’s not until you actually *look at things through an unusual lens and make the assumption that the abnormal is actually “normal” — then you start seeing new curious opportunities and stories to explore that can then evolve and cause creative — rather than typical — disruptions that hopefully make the normal more engaging, fun, creative and curious.

Continue reading Weekending 10232011

Design and Storytelling at AIGA Pivot

Back in 2010 at the University of Michigan Taubman School’s conference on “The Future of Technology” is where I first started thinking about the future as represented in graphs. I brought this visual graphical prop back again at the AIGA conference this last weekend in Phoenix. I guess I figured that a graphic of the future would be a good way to start a talk of the design professional society that at least started with a strong emphasis on graphic arts. (But it’s broadened itself, as I understand, which is good.)

I started with these hand drawn illustrations as a way to show that the future is contestable and malleable and one can make it and need not subscribe to the least-common denominator ideologies about what the future looks like. More than “disruption” — which has weird connotations with business, but just creating a future we imagine, not driven by forces that have typical measures of “future” that includes better battery life and larger screens and more brain-y smart devices.

I participated in a discussion on Design and Storytelling. It was a rehash of some existing material on Design Fiction and the various idioms and conventions that Design can learn from science fiction in order to do the work of design — and not just communicate design ideas, but actually *do design.

Parenthetically, I’ve only recently become a part of the AIGA and I’m still in a phase of my professionalization in design. I think it’s quite important to understand that being anything in any community means being a part of the community which means circulating oneself — ideas, conversations, listening and learning. It is a way of advancing oneself *and advancing that professional community. This is why I go to these things and why I try my best to be an active part of the conversations and discussions — contributing something in the form of a talk or a workshop. It’s not because I like to travel around. That part is actually hard on the body and the home. But it’s part of what it means to be “advanced” at whatever one does. Advanced Designers who do not Advance Design are just shift workers. And then they’ll come a time when they are obsolete because they never paid attention to the larger advances in their community and one day they’ll have befuddled looks when the generation or two “behind” them comes up and eats their lunch. It should be a formal requirement to participate at these levels, proactively. There’s a three step plan. I describe it here: http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/2009/04/29/follow-curiosity-not-careers/

Saturday October 15 10:49

Okay. Rant on Advanced Designers who don’t Advance Design is officially over.

Going to these things is hard, fun work — but, then you also learn *new things and meet *new people! One high-note for me was this fellow who I’m sure you all already know about and I may be the last one — Jackob Trollbäck. Here is a designer who I could admire right away as he finds the curious, little weird things full of possibility for expression and experimentation. There were a number of things he showed that were just almost incongruous studies and experiments, much of which was wrapped up in sound and rhythm (also topics of great interest to the laboratory these days) as well as curious visual studies and experiments. These were informal experiments — playing with images and videos from an iPhone that turn a technical failing into an aesthetic marvel. These sorts of unexpected things are very interesting to us here.

Also! There was a little bit of a confirmation for my own personal “that’s weird” study — things that happen and one notices them repeatedly. There’s no big theory explanation here, but I notice curious alignments of numbers on clocks — digital clocks. I was capturing them quite regularly and uploading them to a Tumblr. And then I stopped because people would say — no..that’s not weird. It’s just the time. But it seems Jackob Trollbäck has done the same. So — it was a bit of an affirmation of my weird observations.

Related, here’s the talk from the University of Michigan where I first showed these hand-drawn sketches of the future. I think there’s a t-shirt in here somewheres..

Continue reading Design and Storytelling at AIGA Pivot

Speculative Design Workshop: The Era of Objects at V2_

Thursday September 29 22:14

Last week I was at V2_ in Rotterdam to participate in the event “Blowup: The Era of Objects”. It was a brief visit — too brief, of course — but well worth the time to help facilitate this workshop along with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Anab Jain and curated by Michelle Kasprzak.

There was an EPUB produced for the event containing short essays by Bruce Sterling, Ilona Gaynor, Anab, Alex, myself and others in this: The Era of Objects

The event started with Alex, Anab and myself giving a rapid-fire presentation to lay out some of our own perspectives and work on the theme of “speculative design” — which is an area of design akin to design fiction.

Parenthetically I think it would be worth spending a little bit of time excavating some of the distinctions and contrasts between these various ways of doing design — speculative design, design fiction, critical design — if only to be more specific and open a dialogue about the utility and techniques of these ways of seeing the world a bit differently in order to create new perspectives, principles, points-of-view and the resultant outcomes.

The presentations were short — 20 slides I think was the requirement, done almost pecha kucha style with automatic slide changing after about 30 seconds a slide, so I think we violated pecha kucha trademark rules.

In any case, I cobbled together a perspective on speculative design/design fiction that blurred the boundaries between the two, but also got me started thinking about how the two are distinct.

To start, I outlined three perspectives on what the future is and how it is useful as a way of thinking about what come to be. This is crucial insofar as it’s super important to think from a slightly different angle on what could come to pass. The future isn’t always bigger, brighter, better, better battery life or taller, &c.

To reinforce this I shared several of my “graphs of the future” — some crude hand drawings I made that show various ways in which the future is depicted — linear, logarithmic, a three-dimensional “spread”, a bumpy road of hype curves, &c. This helps reinforce this idea that the future is a point-of-view, which is crafted and created by humans based on a set of ideologies — not in a mean, evil way, but just plainly for the sake of framing what is understood as possible or desirable. Oftentimes though these sorts of points-of-view embedded in graphs are ideological in the sense that they are taken as “law” handed down from somewhere. They’re just points-of-view, like politics and therefore entirely flexible and free to be altered, subverted, re-interpreted and re-graphed.

I then presented what I consider three principles for speculating while designing with fiction:

1) It’s okay to let the imagination wonder — science, technology, design, fact and fiction are all knotted up anyway. By this I mean that once you are working in the broad territory of design, one should not be concerned about steering away from the austere pragmatics of “reality” — one should vector to-and-fro into weird, unexpected territory and flex the realm of what is considered possible. At the same time, be prepared to find that small components of the larger design problem are what one is really after — not so much space-age, fantastical luggage for the future but, in fact — just adding wheels to luggage may be the most significant outcome of getting a “future of luggage” design brief.

2) Realize that stories (and storytelling) are more significant than specifications, feature sets and engineering. As an engineer, this is hard to say, but I believe it more and more every time I’m forced to communicate. The list of sucks. The story, where you can take someone along a path and communicate to them in a way that is engaging and compelling — even if ultimately the base-level of what you are saying is a set of features and the engineering involved — is *much better than just saying what the features are. Show the experience of the design concept in a small story/film/animation/comic book. The hard thing is that telling good stories if really, really difficult. It requires practice and failure and refinement and iteration. I mean — there really aren’t that many good story tellers in the world, but it’s worth aspiring to be at least a satisfactory design storyteller. (Also, parenthetically — I’ve grown weary of the mantra that designers are storytellers. Not because I don’t believe it but because I’d rather see evidence of it, even to the point of workshops and curricula and all that. Maybe I’m overlooking something..a few are; most of course make fast-looking tooth brushes and over plastic-y bits and bobs of landfill.)

3) Science fiction/speculation can do things that science fact/pragmatic reality cannot. It’s more robust to speculate than to cordon off.

Then for the remaining few slides I gave some examples of HOW to speculate with design. These are three approaches/techniques/creative idioms..pastiche, re-enactment/re-imagining, making little films.

1) Pastiche is something I’m quite curious about — a way of moving in and out of reality and fiction, such as turning the reality of the Apollo 11 lunar lander into the cornerstone of an imaginary “owner’s manual” — as if normal humans might own Apollo 11 lunar landers and need to service them in their driveways like normal vehicles rather than highly specialized, hand-built space vessels.

2) Re-enactment/re-imagining, in the particular example I offer of the Tom Sachs project/art-piece “Space Program” is a form of pastiche — replaying an event but altering it subtly to explore alternative futures/pasts.

3) Making little films. I find it extremely useful to make small visual stories that capture the essential characteristics of a design idea. Done quickly without too much preciousness is a great way to iterate on a concept. It forces one to work through many of the aspects of a design fiction/speculation that are very easy to overlook in a static sketch or even a discussion. You have to figure out a number of the important albeit subtle aspects of the design problem. It’s a form of design work, definitely — the film is not just the final communication of an idea; it is design work itself..at least it should be.

Finally, I concluded with two WHY statements..Why speculate with design? Why do design fiction? First, to imagine and see the world from a different perspective. And then of course — speculating and fictionalizing things allows one to imagine and see the world from a non-dominant point-of-view..run against the grain..do the unexpected to nudge things into the realm of new possibilities. Like Dick Fosbury or the guy who decided to bolt some wheels onto the bottom of his barely luggable luggage and thereby roll free around the world.

*shrug.

Following our presentations we entered into a bit of a talk-show style discussion and thence onto the workshop itself. We had three “briefs” for a rapid-iteration design session that was only meant to last about 40 minutes total. Very quick, but these are where interesting things happen. Here were the briefs:

1) The Netherlands. Everyone knows the dikes are going to break and the North Sea is going to begin to cover Holland’s land mass. Despite the best efforts of Dutch engineering prowess, there are “preppers” who want to be sure to be prepared. One is Ries Von Doren — a rich guy who has the resources to do what he wants. In this case, he consults with a design agency to create a disaster communications device because he knows the existing infrastructure (cell phones, emergency networks, etc.) are going to fail. How will he and his family stay in touch?

2) China. Aging population. Robots. How will the robots support the needs of the aged when the numbers reach into the many hundreds of millions?

3) The EU. Things really fall apart in a few months. Deutche Bank takes ownership of Greece. Tensions rise. Travel becomes highly restricted so that engineers from one country cannot get into other countries and so conversations and meetings related to setting and evolving technical standards and interoperability are not able to happen. Soon, systems that connect one country to the other fail to work properly — some countries evolve their internets, others are not able to and very quickly the internet fails to cross borders. The network becomes heavily balkanized. What arises out of this sequence of events? How do people communicate across geographical borders?

I made up the Balkanized Internet one so I listened in on that group. It was good fun. The outcomes were varied but I particularly latched onto this idea that existing infrastructures and systems might be used to facilitate communication — and it may in fact not be the visual internet as we are presently used to. For example, the quaint old RF radio would come back into use, with people using voice and perhaps rudimentary modulation to communicate data/text. DIY low-earth orbit satellite, even buoyed by helium/lighter-than-air systems to set up comms networks. Tapping on rail lines to send low-bandwidth morse-code signals across borders. Slow communication over long-wave. Things like this were all very interesting to imagine.

Why do I blog this? Merely to capture a few points on the week I spent mostly traveling with a few hours doing a workshop. Well worth it, though. I also want to think about a schema of these design approaches — speculative, fiction, critical — to help formalize the distinctions in a useful way.

Speculative Design: Blowup – The Era of Objects

Just a quick note to say — I’ll be at this event at V2__ in Rotterdam (V2_, Eendrachtsstraat 10, Rotterdam) Thursday September 29..so if you’re around, you should come. If you’re not — you should dial-in: ((This event will be streamed live at http://live.v2.nl))

Beyond the flying car: join top designers Julian Bleecker (Nokia, Near Future Laboratory), Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Really Interesting Group), and Anab Jain (Superflux) in an exploration of speculative design.

We are rapidly entering (and perhaps even have already entered) an era where we are able to print 3D objects at our desks, make and share laser-cut gifts for friends, and use off-the-shelf tools to plug these creations into the web and have them send status updates on our behalf. We have some commonly-held visions of the future, but what could our very wildest dreams (and nightmares) look like, beyond the cliché of the flying car? What answers can we find in speculative design? Our expert guests will explore these questions in collaboration with the audience in a hands-on, “open think-tank” format.

Addressing this contemporary issue will be Julian Bleecker: designer, researcher at the Design Strategic Projects studio at Nokia Design and co-founder of Near Future Laboratory; Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino: product designer, entrepreneur, and partner at Really Interesting Group (London); and Anab Jain: interaction designer, founder of Superflux, and recent TED Fellow.

Following a brief talk show with Julian, Alexandra, and Anab, the audience will have the unique opportunity to collaborate with our invited experts in an “open think-tank”: a guided speculative design session wherein we’ll address the product design challenges of the near and not-so-near future.

Continue reading Speculative Design: Blowup – The Era of Objects

Design Fiction on Australian Radio / FutureTense

I had a fun discussion with the folks at this wonderful Australian Radio National’s Future Tense show on the topic of design fiction — “Fictitious futures, virtual development and visual language.”

I suppose its a measure of things the degree to which the conversation about the co-mingling of design, science, fiction, fact and technology spreads far and wide — even to discussions in the realm of public radio. It’s tempting to be more actively involved in the practice of these things.

Actually — finding the way that even the behind-closed-doors work I do during the day can squeak out into the light of day without ruffling feathers is on the list of things to do..or has been for a couple of years now. Not at all to crow about the work, but to share it because there are learning experiences in there and, frankly — it’s not the kind of work that tips directly into the kinds of back alley gossip about what the titans of industry will do this quarter to make their financial lap dogs pant happily. It’s just great, exciting, thoughtful speculative design work that should be discussed and learned-from — process, outcomes, how-to do speculative design..more the meta-meat that is intriguing rather than the material itself.

Continue reading Design Fiction on Australian Radio / FutureTense

Design Fiction Workshop at UX Week 2011

So — enough yammering. Time for some hammering. It’ll be workshops from here to fore. Getting to work. Shirtsleeves. Lab coats. Smocks. Aprons. Hammers.

I’ll be doing a workshop later this summer — August 24 from 2-5:30, to be precise — at the UX Week week-ish long conference in San Francisco brought to you by the fine folks at Adaptive Path. It’s got the didactic title: How the Practice of Design Can Use Fiction to Create New Things. We’re done with fancy, clever, snarky titles for workshops.

It looks like a swell line-up. Old friends. New ones. Fun sounding workshops and methoducation sessions.

Sign up. It’ll be fun.

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From Dick Fosbury to the guy who put wheels on luggage, creating disruptions to convention in positive ways has often meant looking at the world differently. Fiction, especially science fiction, is a way of telling a story about and then forcing one to think about the world by looking at it with a different lens.

Design can approach its creative and conceptual challenges to make things better, or to think differently or to disrupt convention by combining its practice with that of fiction.

In this workshop we will look at the practical ways of employing the rhetorical, creative and cinematic aspects of fiction to help think, act upon, design and create new things.

The principle is simple. If cinematic and literary fiction is able to help imagine and communicate things that may not be possible, how can these same forms of story telling help design practices create disruptive visions of the near future?

In the workshop will share a number of relevant case studies where design and fiction were brought together. The process and outcomes of these case studies will be discussed. Through these case studies we’ll discover approaches, techniques and principles for a pragmatic designing-with-fiction process.

Prerequisites:
An open mind, notebook, pen. Familiarity with science-fiction film, optional.

Outcomes:
A set of tools, approaches and processes for initiating practical design fiction in the studio.

Continue reading Design Fiction Workshop at UX Week 2011

Step Seven of Nine

Step one – write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already. Step two – write problem in my blog; study the commentory cross-linked to other guys. Step three – write my problem in Twitter in a hundred and forty characters. See if I can get it that small. See if it gets retweeted. Step four – open source the problem; supply some instructables to get me as far as I’ve been able to get, see if the community takes it any further. Step five – start a Ning social network about my problem, name the network after my problem, see if anybody accumulates around my problem. Step six – make a video of my problem. Youtube my video, see if it spreads virally, see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem. Step seven – create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. Create some gadget or application or product that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it. Step eight – exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media. And step nine – find some kind of pretty illustrations from the Flickr ‘Looking into the Past’ photo pool.’

via @bruces Atemporality for the Creative Artist.

Continue reading Step Seven of Nine

Design Fiction Chronicles: The Future Issue of The Book and iPad

The Future Issue

In a project we’re currently undertaking that has allowed us to work through and figure out the future of the photo book I was compelled to read through this book called “The Most Beautiful Swiss Books” and the 2009 edition is called “The Future Issue.”

I like the play on words there and didn’t see it until just now.

The Future Issue. Like..it’s the issue from 2009, because this is an annual. But, the future is an issue to consider. Get it? Well..I didn’t until my coffee took hold.

There are a few relevant passages in here on design, the future of reading and publishing and that sort of thing.

* Everyone seems to be considering the iPad. This book was published after the iPad was announced but before it was made available. There should be a follow on to the points made in there. Maybe I’ll do that. Follow up with the critics and ask them. There is the usual bulwark, which is to say that there is something about the tangibility and materiality of the book that is precious, seminal and defines book. Something that people would still want.

Other points related to iPad-mania were to indicate the distinction between book-dedicated readers like Kindle and platforms like iPad in that there is always something available with the iPad to do other than read, which can pose distractions like..*shrug..why not check email now?

There was some excitement about the evolution of book design in the pad-electronic form. What compliments and extends paper, pages, binding and all that.

* And then there was the wonderful canonical reference to 2001 – A Space Odyssey which made me very happy. I had never noticed in the movie poster that there is an iPad, which was referred to as a Newspad in the book upon which the film was based. Bonus design fiction future issues!

There's an iPad in the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie poster

* Mention was made to Wim Wenders seeking opinion on the extinction of movies in the context of the intrusion of television. Would books suffer the same fate as movies did when television appeared?

* Perhaps the most vibrant short essay questioned the phrase The future of. Something called “Experimental Jetset” — a collective of Graphic Designers in Amsterdam wrote that they dislike the three words “The future of..” saying they find “something about the phrase that completely puts us off.”

What bothers us most is the suggestion that the future is an unchangeable entity, something that develops completely independent of ourselves. A pre-determined path, to which we should adapt ourselves, whether we like it or not..

‘Our future’, is something that is manageable, shapeable, changeable, buildable, doable. ‘A future’ sounds pretty decent as well. A plural ‘the futures’? Why not? Just as long as we can get rid of the idea of the future as something that governs us, like some kind of pre-modern deity. Let us be reckless about it: we govern the future, not the other way around.

Perhaps this is the most encouraging perspective in the essays of the book, tucked neatly in near obscurity amongst the two other possible opinions: (1) veiled conceit for the iPad/nostalgic death-grip on the smell of leather, the artisinal bookbinders craft, &c.; (2) curious exuberance for this evolution in the rituals of reading.

Why do I blog this? Notes on opinions about the evolution of book writing, making and the cultural evolutions of reading and publishing practices. Plus the bonus design fiction chronicle on the iPad in 2001!
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: The Future Issue of The Book and iPad

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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