Design Fiction Chronicles: Apollo 11 Owner's Manual

Friday July 23 15:48

Found another design fiction in the form of an Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, published by the folks at Haynes. I remember having Haynes service manuals for the two service-it-yourself buckets I had — a 1980 VW Rabbit and that 1972 Toyota Landcruiser which probably spent more time being made drivable than driving around.

The curious thing to note here is the playful distortion of the genre convention of a service and owner’s manual. One would only reasonably have such a manual if you owned the thing you mean to service, or are planning to get it. Making it a routine sort of technical guide puts you in the position of a service technician or even an astronaut who perhaps bought one of these things and now needs to sort out how to get the glitchy STS Antenna system to reboot.

I’d put this in the same category of design fictions as the Star Trek Starfleet Technical Manual and the myriad Star Wars “Essential Guides”, although these take themselves less seriously.

Many of the technical manuals, operators guides and service manuals for the Apollo, Shuttle and Skylab programs are available online — the real-deal. Packaged in this way as a Haynes manual puts this in a whole different category. The manual itself is more of a Time-Life style book as was pointed out to me when I shared this at the recent Sketching in Hardware 2010 event. Inside are many technical diagrams and explanations of systems — as well as astronaut photographs, descriptions of the program and so on. The cover provides the design fiction device of making the extraordinary possibility of owning this thing quite ordinary — oh? that thing in the driveway? Yeah..that’s my lunar lander..stuck valve in the intake manifold I gotta sort out.

Why do I blog this? Trying to capture some of the genre conventions of design fiction to be a little more articulate about what design fiction is and how it works and what it is for.
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Star Trek Embedded Culture


Speculative design details for a Star Trek (TOS) Sciences Tricorder, complete with placement of thru-hole (!) capacitors, resistors, wire bundles and rectifiers. Just in case you were wondering, there will be no surface mount in the future, which is fine. Tangibility is good. From Franz Joseph. 1975. Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual.

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.
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