Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures

Three ways observed recently to delivery food, in some sort of service stack hierarchy. Which got me thinking about food futures, generally. First, a sample of present food service and presentation protocols as depicted above.

First, catered in a way that provides the opportunity to pick and choose based on inspecting the available items.

Next, inspecting the descriptions of available items on a paper menu, that also conveniently serves two additional functions — as a place mat to sop up drinks spills and food that does not quite make it to the mouth (a distinct possibility when consuming noodle-y things with a fork). Second, it also serves as a marking pad with a number of unique attributes: to indicate when an ordering process has begun (the pink star) and when the meal is closed out and the check has been requested (the blue star); to indicate what is not available currently (item number written on the menu-mat and drawn when a “buster” mark — a circle with a line through it) which appears under my plate for item number 43 which, sadly, was what I wanted to eat; the menu-mat is also where one’s ordered items are written down in (to me) a barely legible set of chicken-scratches (upper right.)

Third, traditional, serif’d menu in a sit-down configuration, heavily serviced by waitstaff in a semi-formal, banquet setting. You wait for what has been determined to be your meal ahead of time. Interestingly, the young woman sitting next to me had to do a bit of dinner order off-roading, convincing the waitstaff to bring her the vegetarian plate. When you try and steer a pre-determined “on-the-rails” dinner service a bit off the tracks, things start grinding gears. This was possible to see in this context where the wiring had to be re-routed in various ways to accommodate this unexpected but relatively minor alteration to plans. (To those of you who have asked, the haggis was quite good, perhaps the formality of the context added something to an experience I genuinely feared. I thought quite seriously of deploying Mike Lewinsky’s powerful “Kosher Defense” which he painstakingly taught me after his experiences in China with the Rabbit Head appetizer. — I don’t think Mike’s China meal was in anyway a metaphor, btw.)

Ice cream from a street vendor amongst a small cluster of other vendors in a mini chocolate tasting/purchasing festival along the South Bank in London.

The dearth of street food in all of the cities I was in during that 12 days in the UK and Finland almost defines the Urban Scout’s conceptual boundary between countries in various parts of the world. There was street food during the day’s perambulation along the South Bank of a particularly pre-configured, organized and licensed sort. Despite that, the opportunity for Ice Cream in London in early April meant something. Besides these, the closest to genuine on-the-street food stalls was rather organized and festival-like. Which is fine. I mean — generally, I take the cautious Urban Scout approach to food consumption which is a minimum of experimentation, and smell but don’t ingest street-made street food.

A crowd of sweets taunting from behind a case at the delicious Indian restaurant called Tayyabs. Food taunting protocols. Display varieties in such a way as to evoke primal triggers for food consumption — like salivating and eye-widening. My restraint algorithm was employed to modest effect.

Thinking about food, and the future, and the future of food got me wondering about rather narrow future food imaginaries. It seems that there is basically food, also, in the future. Space foods of some sort or rudimentary staples. I collected a few science-fiction food future scenes from film that popped into my head right away. These are instances of rather stable food futures, consistent with today in a way that says, basically, food stays the same.

Zero-gravity space food as imagined in the late 1960s, right around the time that NASA in the United States was trying to figure out how astronauts would eat in their weightless journeys to the moon and back. Consistent with the rigor of his production design, Kubrick considered similar constraints on food and eating on long journeys, such as in his epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seen here are colored food products, delivered via straw to mitigate hunks floating off into the ship’s environment and gumming up the works. This is perhaps the most future-y food I could recollect in my own science fiction film library.

The future of the street vendor / outdoor noodle and sushi bar. Steamy, crowded, jostling, limited availability of specialty things, as seen in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.


At the noodle and sushi bar in Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick.

Ridley Scott’s production design and extrapolation of Los Angeles downtown (?) into the future fiction of the film has been praised for the way it captured something that was visually articulate — it is an evocative projection into a legible future world. Spoken language mash-ups, bustling crowds, density and thickness of all sorts — weather, advertising, etc. It’s worth a quick look of this food futures scene, which only serves as a prop to turn the drama a bit toward Deckard. The production design here, though, captures an imaginable setting and atmosphere.

Blade Runner by Ridley Scott and P.K. Dick. (Blade Runner Noodle Bar — Food Futures).

Eating in the future, family style. Some grains and salads. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

A future instance of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer or something. Enjoying a cigarette. Quite consistent food futures. From Alien by Ridley Scott.

Box, sweetened, kid’s breakfast cereal. Suitable for snacking without milk by pouring directly into the mouth. Very familiar food and eating practice, projected into the year 2050. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

An advert from the year 2050, where there is still Guiness, thank goodness. From Minority Report by Steven Spielberg and P.K. Dick.

There are some future food imaginaries where we find quite stable futures. We still eat in the future, it seems. I left out the future imaginaries like Soylent Green where “we” (people) get eaten or are alien food. That’s for another consideration.

Why do I blog this? Curious interfaces between people and their food and meals observed while out and about as an Urban Scout. I t is interesting to think about the stability of food, despite the high-end explorations with various delivery mechanisms like aerated food products and other delivery protocols and fancy concoctions.

Distinctive future imaginaries for food are few and far between, best as I can tell just thinking about it. Food is delivered. Space food becomes the same food as today, only constrained by the limits of things like preparation, weight and, bleech..consistency. Food becomes, in the future imaginary, quite instrumental in its consideration of necessary intake and so forth. It seems strange to me that there are not more design fictions that shape design practices that are directly concerned with what food might become. Maybe it’ll be closer to athletic food gels, formulated by food scientists. Bio-chemical genetic foods and the like, taken to their logical and insane conclusion.
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: The Stability of Food Futures

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.

Workshop on Pervasive Advertising

It amazes me how non-relevant this topic is, particularly nowadays when there can be little reason to entice a consumer to engage in letting loose of whatever cash they may have. By the time we get out of the current morass of mistrust, misspending and misguided expectations of a world where all the growth graphs go up and to the right, we should be happy to have a pair of trousers that fit and a spigot with potable water running out of it.

But, the topic of pervasive advertising goes further than that. What could the outcome of a workshop be other than..a world of pervasive advertising. I mean, working out the details is all good, but what about a workshop on a world without advertising? Could that even be possible to have without essentially saying you’re going to quit your job as an engineer/scientist of pervasive stuff?

It just turns out that the vision of a near future of pervasively advertised-to humans just comes out all wrong. It’s only ever annoying and bothersome, or a horrid expression of human-database symbiosis.

There’s really not much more of an end game for pervasive advertising than that of the extrapolation of today’s conditions as in the remarkable design fiction of Spielberg’s visual rendering of P.K. Dick’s “Minority Report”. The assemblage of participants in the world of advertising is optimized for itself, which is well-greased linkages between me, my “interests” (to the extent these translate into commerce) and those who have something to gain in economic terms from selling me my interests. It’s optimized to leverage the pervasively networked, databased world and this can only lead to an intensely uninspired, technically awesome, intrusive and annoying world. It can’t really go any other way than that shown in the various compelling and fascistic interpretations in “Minority Report” of the pervasive advertising future – retinal scanning, holographic “pop-up” adverts, yammering cereal boxes with laminated displays and gesture recognition (to know when I’m trying to tell it to stop yammering, which is guaranteed to fail any number of times, as adroitly shown in Spielberg’s film), fascistic large urban screens, etc.

Yet, this workshop sounds pleasantly inviting. I don’t, though, see how the conditions of possibility for a world of pervasive advertising would lead to anything but the nuisance we experience today, times a billion. Who knows. Maybe today’s economic blight will wipe advertising as we know it off the face of the map for something else. What that is, i have no idea but so long as we think of advertising as a “sure thing” along with death and taxes, it’ll be nothing more than what it is today, except with a few network links and even bigger screens. We’ll still have “pop-ups” only they’ll stand in front of us when we try to get from here to there. We’ll still have messages on otherwise blank walls reminding us to give feedback on that Torx wrench we just bought from Callium Carbide Tools of Peoria last week. I mean..sounds wretched.

$100 for the first person who can come up with a compelling imaginary of a world without advertising, and one that renders viable and with a buzzing economy.


1st Workshop on Pervasive Advertising

In conjunction with Pervasive 2009
May 11, 2009 – Nara, Japan

Submission Deadline: February 10, 2009

“The only sure things in life are death, taxes and advertising. Although
pervasive technologies cannot avoid death or lessen the pain from
taxation, advertising is fertile ground for research on pervasive

[[What ninny said this?? What? Did Moses take out a 2 minute spot during the parting of the Red Sea? If this is the principle of pervasive advertising, fatwa on all pervasive advertising workshops! If advertising really is a necessary evil, like death and taxes, lets get to work on making it an obsolete evil thing that has been eradicated, like the Pox and Foot and Mouth disease; get rid of it already. Or get onto something different and inspired and more in keeping with the times. Stop twiddling about with technologized versions of the same old crap. Seriously.]]


Electronic displays have become ubiquitous and replace traditional
posters and billboards. Hence they not only provide a way of showing
dynamically updated content, but also means to react implicitly and
explicitly to the audience in their vicinity. In order to interact with
the target audience, technologies need to be explored capable of
identifying the user or his interests / needs.

[[Well, this is speculative. I see plenty of peeling wheat-paste-ups all over the place. but, okay. Let’s assume that J.C. Decaux is well-positioned to introduce digital displays ubiquitously. Do I want to know that they’re linked to a database of me? Who is J.C. Decaux anyway? Can I tell him to leave my database alone?]]

The current generation of mobile phones come with high speed Internet
access and built-in location sensing. Those properties make mobile
phones a powerful mediator between the advertiser / advertising platform
and the customer.

[[Good God. That’s just wrong. I mean, who wants an ad to pop up on their phone?? I have enough trouble when I get an SMS. Seriously. Who is it? Am I missing something here?]]

Social networks such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn are rapidly
growing. Such platforms include detailed information not only on the
interests of users (based for example on profiles and histories) but
also on their network. This information is placed on the Internet and
shared with friends or even the public.

[[Yeah, but under my own terms. Or should be. Can I opt out of pervasive advertising networks?]]

These technological advances, and others, change the opportunities and
challenges for advertising radically.

[[Not really. It’s the same crap, only with a network and a database and real-time data links. Really. Don’t fool yourself to think that something innovative is going on here. It’s just optimization of an existing schema for knots and linkages between my wallet, my sensibilities and some company some where.]]

Consequently, advertising is becoming one of the major drivers of
pervasive computing technology for many end-users (e.g. mobile ads,
digital signs, context awareness, RFID). Yet we believe that the
attention this topic received in the pervasive computing community does
not equal its immediate impact on society.

Taking a positive view we can envision advertisements that precisely
match a person’s interests and fit the current situation so well that
people enjoy receiving them and see advertising as a pleasant
distraction. On the contrary taking a negative view one could imagine a
world where people cannot escape from advertisement, where we are
continuously tracked and where advertisements reduce the quality of
life. Both views even though very extreme are worthy of further
discussion. Hence we hope to provide a venue for this discussion by
offering this workshop.

[[I’ll be looking for the workshop write-up. I’m dubious. No one in my mind has come up with anything other than that which will lead to the “Minority Report” imaginary. Seriously. As pleasant as it is shown in the PowerPoint, it’s always enormous screens beaming down to me Coca-Cola ads or encouraging me to buy a watch only someone like Sir Edmund Hillary would know, those big, multi-face “chronometers” that look like an exercise weight.]]


We ask potential attendees to submit 2-4 page papers describing their
research interest and particular focus on the workshop topic. The paper
may include the description of ongoing research, results found,
experience gathered, new ideas, future projects or questions on topics
related to pervasive computing and advertising. Each participant is
asked to provide a short paragraph (up to 200 words) on their vision of
advertising in 25 years from now. All submissions will be peer-reviewed.

More information can be found at

All submissions must be sent electronically to
The format for submissions is Springer LNCS, the same as that of
Pervasive 09.
Templates can be found at

Papers should be no longer than 4 pages. All papers must be submitted in
PDF. At least one author for each accepted paper is expected to attend
the workshop.

Non-archival working notes will be produced containing the papers
presented at the workshop. Selected papers from the workshop may be
considered for expansion and inclusion in a special issue of a journal.


* February 10, 2009: Deadline for electronic submission
* March 1, 2009: Author Notification
* May 1, 2009: Submission of camera-ready
* May 11, 2009: Pervasive Advertising Workshop at Pervasive 2009


Jörg Müller, University of Münster

Albrecht Schmidt, University of Duisburg-Essen

Bo Begole, PARC

Aaron Quigley, University College Dublin

Why do I blog this? I dunno. This stuff kinda bugs me, if you can’t tell. It’s pretty clear that the angle is to create something that has commercial viability, rather than thinking things through for an alternative near future of connecting people, interests, ideas and so forth. On the one hand, it’s exciting and futuristic stuff. On the other hand, it’s not a future that I think has particularly exciting prospects in the category of “habitable”, fun, non-invasive, non-bothersome, non-pop-up-in-your-face futures. And, the advertising thing. I’m serious. If someone can’t paint a picture of a world without advertising..I’m listening. And I got your $100 here.
Continue reading Workshop on Pervasive Advertising