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.
There was recently a wonderful article on Ars Technica interviewing the production and prop designers for Star Trek. I highly recommend giving it a read, even if you’re not a Trekkie. What I find most curious is the creative constraints that the production design was under and their solution. With a limited budget for doing lots of physical design, they decided to draw the user interfaces, rather than assemble them from hardware like knobs and buttons and so on. The idea of a screen-based display that would change based on what it needed to do — a “soft” interface — arose.
An indulgement, visiting the Star Trek Exhibition at Hollywood and Highland the other day to just see what it was all about. Turns out, it was mostly about a few ways to get visitors to say — oh, alright.. — when it came to liberating them from $20 here and $20 there for photos, lenticular gizmos and admission. But, I think it was worth it if only because I get a blog post out of it all.
One curiosity that made me chuckle, although not entirely unexpected, I was amused at how this one component of the exhibition — a long, multi-wall science-museum style “march of history” models-in-dioramas — made a tongue-in-cheek transition in historical timelines, from the *real* to the designed future history of Star Trek.
This one particular exhibit consists of a dozen or so Enterprises throughout history, starting with two US aircraft carriers, telling of their exploits in World War II in the Pacific; the Gulf War more recently, and so on. Okay, heard of them — a factoid or two. Then, onto the Space Shuttle Enterprise, named partially at the urging of ardent Star Trek fans. A gesture befitting the strength of the story to push the imagination toward space exploration. The materialization of an aspiration in the form of composite materials, redundant computer navigation systems, enormous engines and a phalanx of command-and-control tracking systems, pilot training programs, a number of firsts-into-space for various nationalities and professions, a spectacular disaster, the normalization of space travel, an X-prize, etc., etc.
Immediately next to the Space Shuttle Enterprise — is Zefram Cochane’s Phoenix — huh? The simple descriptive text, normalizing this future history’s first faster-than-light spacecraft, made me chuckle. Cheeky and clever little cognitive shift that made this part of the exhibit fun. The displays continue on, of course — to all the various Enterprises, with allusions to their demise, Captain’s, a touch and gesture toward a defining moment in their adventures/stories/shows (getting lost forever in the Delta Quadrant, equipped with wild Romulan technology, etc.)
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Prototype Reusable Orbital Spacecraft
NASA registry OV-101
Commanders: Fred W. Haise, Jr., Joseph H. Engle
The Space Shuttle Enterprise was the prototype vehicle for NASA’s fleet of reusable orbital spacecraft. Built in the mid-1970s by North American Rockwell, the Enterprise flew a series of critical test flights in 1977. The shuttle was released in mid-air by a Boeing 747 mother ship, after which it glided to landings at the desert lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base. The Enterprise paved the way for NASA’s space shuttle program, which carried numerous scientific payloads and space probes into orbit (including the Hubble Space Telescope), as well as a large portion of the International Space Station.
Experimental Warp-Powered Spacecraft
Designer, Builder, and Pilot: Zefram Cochrane
Earth’s first faster-than-light spacecraft was built in 2063 by Zefram Cochrane and Lily Sloane. Cochrane and Sloane built the Phoenix on an abandoned nuclear base, left over after Earth’s Third World War. Cochrane piloted the Phoenix’s historic first warp flight on April 5, 2063, a short jaunt, traveling just a few light minutes. During the flight, Phoenix’s warp signature was detected by a passing Vulcan survey ship, leading directly to Earth’s first official contact with extraterrestrial life. The ship now resides in the Smithsonian Insitution.
Why do I blog this? Just following and noting various simple strategies and literary devices to create moments of fiction within a blurrily factual world. In this case the future is assumed, and the past is reimagined to bring into alignment this future fictional world. Similar in many ways to Sascha’s The Golden Institute.
Continue reading Design Fiction Chronicles: Star Trek's Historical Time Line
In slightly delayed commemoration of a rather enjoyable Star Trek movie, I share this bit of design work done by my colleague Andrew Gartrell, together with a posse of model makers, a functioning Communicator, an object in conversation with the future fiction of The Old Star Trek. It’s a fantastic bit of craftsmanship. It’s important that it works (as a cell phone..), of course, and that it accents itself with a variety of Star Trek signatures, such as chip-chip-chirp birdsong for the clamshell opening, a great Star Trek background screen, appropriate LED annunciators, etc.
The object emphasizes the interminglings of fact/fiction, real/novel stories and the points of entry provided for entering into the construction of futures and their stories. I’ve made this point along with others about the role of design, science, fact and fiction in creating opportunities to imagine and test possible futures through “props” and “prototypes.” I see this object (and others) operating in this way — providing a chance to enter into and participate in the construction of new, hopefully more habitable worlds.
The Star Trek Communicator is often quite deliberately linked to some motivations for the creation of the normal, human cell phone communicator. This point is made in the fun, campy, docutainment film “How William Shatner Changed The World”, which I highly recommend. It shows the many ways that people and objects have been shaped in various ways from the science fiction of Star Trek, including this fellow from Motorola, Martin Cooper, presented as the father of the mobile phone, who happened upon an episode of Star Trek that got him thinking.
Making things, drawing them, are ways of imagining and linking those imaginings to their materialization. Without prioritizing what kinds of materialization happen, the point is that the fiction inspires. All of these things are, in many ways, similar to what Joseph Franz did when he constructed the Star Trek Technical Manual — it’s as much an exploration of the corners of the Trek world that did not enter the teleplays directly as it is an expression of the curiosity and passion of fans to help make that future imaginary world. Why?
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.)
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.
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?
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.
For anyone who hasn’t watched the amusing trekumentary How William Shatner Changed the World — please, treat yourself. It come back and forth to my mind as I hammer out some of the contours of design fiction thinking and practices.
The theme is quirky and done with a dose of hubris, of course, which adds a bit of geeky humor to the whole thing. But, the undergirding notion is that some of the instrumental and ontological furniture of the Star Trek future are found here, today. In some ways, with some of that furniture, we are in the Star Trek future. We don’t have intrepid, frontiersman space captain’s tear-assing around the universe, contemplating the ethics of Prime Directives. But, we do have things like Bones’ medical bay, at least in some parts of the world. We do have communicator like things, of course. And Shatner will take you to the folks who are today’s engineer-scientist geniuses who grew up on Star Trek and have come to him to help wonder about the role it played in their young lives, providing little sources of inspiration and contemplation and motivation.
At least, that’s how the story’s told in this clever, campy documentary. All the folks are real — they’re not making stuff up to bolster the Shatner ego. In all seriousness, what I find most intriguing is the implication here for this design fiction notion — that science fiction has always participated in creating future worlds.
More than the imagining, but the speculating, prototyping and thinking-through of the near future worlds we may want to inhabit. This is where the design component comes in — as a resource, actively engaged in the “engineering” of things, experiences, objects. It’s not an easy thing to do. Much of the work done today in making near future worlds wants to get down to the brass-tacks operations of things. Logistics. Pragmatics of markets. Instrumental aspects of making objects, forgetting too quickly the imagination. Dismissive of speculation and creative imagination. Not even considering the possibilities of telling stories to help think things through. It’s a peculiar, undisciplined approach to innovation — to doing things differently and finding new materialization practices.
There’s so much about Star Trek that lives outside of the television and movies themselves that shows the active hand of imagining in real, material ways all the bits and pieces below the surface. I’ll own up. I remain a huge Star Trek fan. I dug up my old Starfleet Technical Manual that I got with a fistful of dollar bills saved when I was a tiny boy, purchased at a real, honest-to-god Star Trek convention in New York City that my dad took me and my brother to. This imaginative book closes a lot of the gaps, helping to imagine the nuances of the Star Trek near future, making it seem more tangible and possible. The book is a kind of design prototyping — a sketchbook to help ponder one possible future world with all of its props, each behaving as a kind of conversation piece through which that future happens.
Continue reading Star Trek Embedded Culture