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.’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!
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Kitchen of the Future


I wonder about the various settings and contexts used to re-imagine what the world might be like in the future. Often times those contexts, objects, environments are associated with what wealthy people would like for themselves in order to drive sales of new stuff. This is understandable in a mostly capitalist world, of course.

Often times one finds rather naive, un-encumbers, un-troubled extrapolations of desires or behaviors for and within these spaces of human endeavor (the car, the bathroom, the workspace/place, the kitchen) based on somewhat awkward and thin assumptions about what the world will be like, and what people want from these spaces. The kitchen is such a place where sometimes wacky ideas about the evolution of behaviors in these spaces tips into the absurd — like 3D printed food in a world where people seem to be enjoying the visceral world of preparation and chopping and stewing and all that. The kitchen is a place where just making simple things just a little bit better seems the best path toward the near future — such as no microwave nagging beeps; refrigerators that are smart enough to either be told (with a *button, not a context sensor) that, yes..the door is open..its open because I’m loading the goddamn need to beep at me). Big change — those things should be consistent with the real, global, epic-scale challenges to living in the near future world — which have nothing to do with a refrigerator that lets you know you need more damn milk. I mean..really? Why does that get to be the enginerds scenario for a better kitchen?


I recently found this Ikea’s Kitchen of the Future and it made me think of a number of topics related to imagining the future. Firstly, it is worth considering why the typical western kitchen becomes the subject for future fictioning.

Why imagine the future of the kitchen, practically thinking? Is this going to save the world from itself? Well — perhaps it could and that actually would be a fantastic design project — reconsider the kitchen in light of (and then list your parameters having to do with ecological collapse/civil liberty infractions/pro-democracy uprising/emergency water rationing/$12 a gallon heating fuel/&c.)

But, as for the kitchen that Ikea imagines, I suppose there are a number of reasons why the kitchen is a seductive setting for setting the components of the future. These probably have to do with perhaps the fact that the kitchen in the West is quite modular and therefore subject to study of the various individual components — refrigerator, cabinets, dishwasher, sink, stove, oven, etc. The kitchen also has a history of reconsideration in this regard if you consider things such as the Frankfurt Kitchen. Such was a purposeful, design-principle led modernization in the height of, you know — modernism. It was designed to be as efficient as possible in a small space using very modern “workflow study” techniques. This meant that it was designed for specific flows of activity, like a factory in a way.

This idea of every-increasing efficiency would be consistent with the Jetson’s kitchen from the old fantastic cartoon. Maximum efficiency — just select what you would like using a physical paper punch-card and it gets issued from the machine (complete with consistently type-faced names for the items.)

In my anecdotal experience and without any exhaustive survey or study — it seems to me that, despite predictions there is quite a move back towards more “artisinal” (*shudder) kitchen activities. Rather than anything indicating that machines will 3D print our food, the craft of cooking appears to be alive and well as indicated by such things as celebrity chef restaurants, a never ending stream of cooking shows on television, various food movements/philosophies that desire a deeper, conscientious connection to the food chain (where has the veggie/beast come from? how was it fertilized/fed?), &c.

I think this example of the Ikea kitchen also embodies the challenges of future-fying anything well. Too much fetish of the object and very specific, naive and — old fashioned — ideas about what people want in the future. ((Isn’t that ironic.))

Why do I blog this? I’m trying to tap into the various parameters by which the future is really crappily represented in models and speculations and scenarios. I think one component of this has to do with an over-emphasis on the artifcats themselves — making faster things, or smaller things, or more silver-y or white things, or 3D food printers because, like..3D and printing are a Wired Magazine meme, or other poorly considered reasons. ((Meanwhile, I would be satisfied with making whoever invented the microwave beep-beep-beep-beep to indicate the timer has expired to have to listen to beeping perpetuity..until their earballs explode.)) I understand that the Ikea thing is more marketing puff than proper, considered design and it drives me nuts that entities with the ability to bring about real, substantive change in the world bother to spend their money with this crap that’ll just be torn down after the annual investors meeting or the stupid trade show is over. While the kitchen may not be terribly exciting to me specifically (perhaps because of these speculations that ruin the excitement of really making a better more habitable future) everyone has to eat, and those eat’ns need to be prepared — and finding new ways to do that preparation in the near future should be taken seriously without pandering to the whims of deliriously rich people who can afford to redo their kitchen every other year. There should be a kind of agency or consultancy that looks at this sort of thing seriously and re-imagines the near future of the kitchen using principle-led design and maybe even design fiction techniques.
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Representations of the Future with Graphs

Graphs of the Future

I collected some graphs that attempt to represent how the future comes to be while I was preparing for a talk at the University of Michigan’s “Future of Technology” conference, from which I’ve just returned. The graphs are simple ways to represent the path from now into the future and what makes “then” the future and different from “now.” I drew what I had in mind as you see above while I was teasing out something interesting to say for the talk. All along the way I was hoping to be able to show some film clips that I’ve been gathering — film clips of speculative futures and science-based fictions. The talk — it was only 15 minutes exactly — was called 9 Ways of Seeing the Future.

Here they are.

Idea, Prototype, Product

One. The future starts with an idea, and you try it out and test it, and then when it works that means you’ve accomplished something new and then you’re in the future. James Dyson is the exemplar of this kind of future-making because he prototypes his stuff insanely. ((How else do you make vacuum cleaners that suck so much?))

Up and to the Right

Two. The future starts at the origin and then goes up, and to the right, which is better/brighter/smaller/bigger/longer/faster than the origin, so it’s in the future.

Exponentially Better

Three.I got the scale on the left wrong, but this is the Moore’s Law future which goes up and to the right like Two, but it does so exponentially faster, so you get an intensely better future when compared to the normal up-and-to-the-right future.

Gartner Hype Curve

Four. The Gartner Hype Curve, where whatever the future is, it is sure to be oversold and overpromised, leading to the *trough of disillusionment and despair, after which the future sort of becomes more reasonable than the hype and slowly productizes itself. ((I’m still waiting for the Jet Pack future.))

Future Is Distributed

Five. The future that distributes over space and time — William Gibson’s *sandwich spread truism that says the future is here already, but it’s just not evenly distributed. Presumably it starts in places like Silicon Valley, although he might argue that it also starts in the back alley bar in Mogadishu or some other shit hole, seeing as how things are going these days.

Auger Possible Product Futures

Six. James Auger‘s drawing of the product future where there are many possible *technologies that will anchor themselves into a future present, as well as alternative futures that may lie off-axis somewhere. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Maybe I’ll get the chance at the Design Fiction conference.


Seven. From A Survey of Human-Computer Interaction Design in Science Fiction Movies which describes the future as a collaboration/circulation of ideas between engineers/scientists and film makers. It’s a curious, provocative paper, thin on synthesis (it’s a survey, after all). I like the diagram most of all. Even in its simplicity it provides a nice appetizer for capturing some of the rich stew of David A. Kirby’s diegetic prototypes.

Eight. Colin Milburn’s Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench is perhaps graphed dynamically in which he describes the future as particular kinds of “mods” or modifications to things that exist in the here and now. You know you’re in the future when the normal, plain thing has become kitted-out and enhanced, perhaps on the street. (link to video)

And so then I noticed that these are representations of the future that are rather flat instrumental and parametricized visions of the future and the route to it. And I’m wondering — rather than parametric and numerical and quantified representations of the futures — don’t use graphs — what about stories that avoid the problematic time-goes-from-left-to-right, or that there is only one coordinate for a specific future. An easier way of acknowledging multiple simultaneous futures, and multiple possible futures and that the future is a lived, embodied situation rather than the result of miniaturization or optimization. The future is for us and we live in experiences and stories — not in aspirations for technologies themselves.

Seeing as representations prescribe what we consider possible and even reasonable, having a richer, thicker, more lived representation to help imagine other sorts of futures — and not just bigger/brighter/smaller/lighter ones with new products that we buy to replace the old, perfectly good ones we bought six months ago — we might look toward stories about the future that you can’t graph on a piece of paper.

This is where the Ninth representation comes in — science fiction film. This of course does not exclude other strong representations of the future like science fiction writing, science and technology journalism, and all other kinds of literature I’m sure you’re thinking about. Just happens that right now I’m excited by science fiction film (err..have been for quite some time) and I’m focusing on that.

So, to close out my 15 minute talk and my 1000 word blog post, I shared a short excerpt from Volume 7 of a collection of annotated DVDs the Laboratory’s Media Theory department is creating based on representations of the near future in science fiction film. In this one I look at some of the signs and signals about The Future that are represented in some favorite films.

Why do I blog this? The main point of the talk was, for me, to think through another reason why I see design fiction as a useful idiom for doing design. What I concluded is that choosing how we imagine and represent the future is crucial — and not peripheral — to our ability to solve problems. Graphs are good, but I wanted to establish that there are other ways of productively and fruitfully representing what can be in order to materialize ones ideas. So — science fiction as much more than a distraction from the hassles of figuring out where your idea is on the productization scale, or determining when transistor counts will go up to the next order of magnitude and then never really wondering why that might be useful in a save-the-planet sort of way.

We seem to be pattern recognizers and so the templates and processes and frameworks in which our imaginations live determine to a large extent the possible things we can think of and the measures by which we judge them. ((Which, parenthetically, may be that the best thing one can learn to do is learn see the world through different lenses and from different perspectives — but maybe even more importantly is to know how and when to establish those different perspectives and then help others see — and then think — differently.))

Thanks to everyone at the Taubman College of Architecture and University of Michigan for the invitation and for enduring my hand drawn slides in a sea of luscious, expertly and painstakingly rendered 3D models of parametric architectures.
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The Future is a Mod


From 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. In the epoch of the $23 paperback and self-help books disguised as design and camouflaged by Bruce Mau’s palid wisdom, this is the best $9 you’ll ever spend. EVER.

Friday January 01 16:38

A mod.

<a href=""?@bruces pointed out this curious paper called Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench from Colin Milburn, who sits in the Program in Science and Technology Studies that our old UCSC History of Consciousness school chumJoe Dumit heads. The paper takes a go at describing the entangled, multivalent, contentious and complex relationship between science, fact, fiction and the future. The interplay between all of these — and throw in fan cultures, society at large, politics, money, power, knowledge and authority..heck, lets just say “technoscience” and be done with the litanies — is a tricky thing to describe and always seems to make people hot under the collar lest capital-s Science feel it looses its authority as the canonical, go-to guy for where knowledge about the world comes from.

What Milburn might say — what many who appreciate the fun to be found in the rich layer cake of knowledge production — is that the interplay between fiction and fact is actually a good thing. He would say that the assumption that scientist, their ideas and their divinations in the form of science facts about the natural world is not only wrong, but it does a disservice by discounting the productive contributions that other idea-generating mechanisms can bring to the game of knowledge-production. And for Milburn, curiously — games provides a fruitful framework for his way of describing the interplay between science fact and science fiction. He uses the game “mod” — or modification — as a metaphor for the way that science fact and science fiction produce knowledge and materialize ideas.

“In many ways, the day-to-day activities of laboratory science resemble some of these fan practices: sampling from and building on the work of others, taking what was successful in one experiment and applying it elsewhere, proceeding through imitation, eclectic opportunism, bricolage, and so forth. So with such fan practices in mind, I would like to suggest that our understanding of how science fiction works at the bench would be greatly improved by seeing scientists as cultural consumers like any culture consumers, perhaps even in some cases as science fiction fans like any science fiction fans, but having at their disposal the tools and the resources for making science fiction and other cultural materials actually usable for science — and vice versa.”


A rough circulation model for the movement and influence of ideas between and amongst science fact and science fiction in entertainment. From A Survey of Human-Computer Interaction Design in Science Fiction Movies by Schmitz, Endres and Butz.

This is an intriguing perspective for its simplicity, which is good. The simplicity should be contrasted with the oftentimes baroque offerings of explanation delivered by critical theory (and worse..philosophy) when brought to bear on the world of science, or epistemology of science. By drawing from more contemporary ideas about fan culture and then saying — hey..scientists can be science fiction fans, too, Milburn is stating what would seem obvious. (Obvious, but breeching the perimeter of scientists’ secret lair can be dangerous — cf the “Science Wars
” — and “The Science Wars” that waged in the 90’s amongst about 300 got down-right nasty! could write a movie script from the back-biting, the misrepresentations, the gaffs and punk’ngs — the whole FBI thing interviewing historians of science at their annual conference about the where-for of the Unabomer? But..only 300 people would go see the movie..still, exciting for a clutch of Ph.D.s.)


Milburn is stating that scientists should not be exempt from fandom and the larger influences of the ideas that are heavily circulated in various forms of science fiction cultures, entertainment even as they are distilled and decanted through various means that themselves may not be categorized as “science fiction.” It’s not like they ignore their imaginations, which might have caught wind of — or even been inspired by — say..Star Wars or Minority Report or Raumpatrouille Orion or Space 1999.

Milburn then goes on to say that the idea of the “mod” — the modification like the game mod, or the music mash-up, “fanfic” style grassroot storytelling that responds to the desires of fans and so on — all of these *ways of circulating and generating new music/stories/conversations should perhaps suggest that the same can happen with science when fact and fiction engage each other. Milburn describes three kinds of mods for science fiction that make it fruitfully usable by technoscience (in other words — he’s not dissing science but rather seems to be suggesting that science fact becomes better for being able to push itself beyond its own institutional limits by engaging science fiction productively): blueprint mods, supplementary mods and speculative mods.

Blueprint mods translate a specific, discrete element of science fiction and attempt to materialize it as a technical reality. The relevant example he gives is of Linden Labs using Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as a model for their Second Life as described in the book Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life. The blueprint mod goes beyond using the science fiction as an influence or inspiration — it wants to make something that is quite specific in the text, “extrapolating and inventing a distinct technical dimension..disregarding any necessary integrity or organicity of the fiction.” Milburn mentions the seemingly endless fascination of this form of “mod” with entire book series and Wiki pages devoted to “The Science of..” show/movie/book.

Supplementary mods attempt to approximate a science fiction concept. This means that what sounds cool but is taken to be technically impossible will be worked on to create a scientifically viable alternative. There has been work on invisibility shields that fall into this category of supplementary mods. For example, this invisibility cloak that is evocative of the cloak that P.K. Dick’s Agent Fred wears in A Scanner Darkly. I saw this device at Ars Electronica in 2008 — it is definitely an approximation but tips into this sort of supplementary mod. It seems to say — this is a very cool idea. We know it is technically intractable, but we’re going to push forward anyway with this project that begins to activate the imagination and inspire further modding.

Speculative mods is where science fiction is used in science writing and technical papers as a way of describing possible futures and the extrapolation of today into tomorrow. This is a form I find quite often — the “it’s like the ray gun in Lost In Space” sort of thing. Milburn acknowledges that that historians and cultural theorists of technoscience appreciate how science speculation, “forecasting”, futurological narratives, road mapping and so on play a role as “scripts” in the laboratory and R&D agendas. But, he says —

“..we have yet fully to take on the manifold ways these practices interrelate with the predominant mode of speculative narration in the modern era — namely, science fiction. Its generic traces can often be discerned where scientific probabilities or expectations for the future are rendered as discourse, as a now quotidian way of speaking about the consequences of scientific or technological change: the everydayness in postindustrial societies of what..has been called ‘science fiction thinking’..”

Why do I blog this? This is a great short essay that captures some of the themes of the design fiction conversations that are swirling about here and there. There’s some useful reinforcement of things that David A. Kirby has described as the “diegetic prototype” — which I think is kin to Milburn’s idea of the mod, insofar as it allows for the circulation of ideas and does not explicitly prioritize either fact or fiction.

What I find interesting is the use of the idea of the mod — a form of circulating and layering cultural forms to create something that builds upon some underlying stories and characters and worlds that are ostensibly fiction to make something material and tangible that is ostensibly fact. And then when you understand the rich ways in which ideas blur together and you stop prioritizing the fact/fiction binary — you begin to see new possibilities for imagining and creating and materializing ideas that avoids those silly cat fights over who done what first or who was the originator or an idea.
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Stuart's *Fragments of Possible Worlds* / Reperceiving The Future

Saturday October 03, 17.27.54

Just a fragment of a post — something that’s been sitting in drafts for a few months now for some reason. I guess I was trying to find something to put alongside of it, but it sits well by itself.

It’s from a post by Laboratory cousin Stuart Candy and its got some suggestive little nuggets — particularly appealing to me is “reperceiving.” This is the way he is describing what artists and futurists do as their vocations — “enabling new perceptions.”

Stuart Candy Reperceiving Detroit

" Called “Fragments of Possible Worlds: The Art and Design of Experiential Scenarios”, my presentation encouraged the audience, mostly Cranbrook students and faculty, to consider the resemblance between the role of the artist and that of the futurist. What the two have in common, as I see it, is the vocation of enabling new perceptions. Compared to the artist, whose self-understanding frequently seems to include a studied refusal of the constraints to which many other kinds of work are subject (viz. “artistic licence”), the futurist’s role may be somewhat more circumscribed, especially in a consulting setting, by the client’s needs. But the general role is fundamentally similar. And, while there is a conscious turn towards public and political engagement in my recent work, compared to the more narrowly targeted, strategic use of foresight as used in organisational settings, this common ground shared by art and futures is well captured by the elegant phrase of Royal Dutch/Shell scenario planning pioneer Pierre Wack: “the gentle art of reperceiving”."

Why do I blog this? I like this way of describing the work of creating new visions of possible worlds as reperceiving, or helping people to reimagine what the world could be like. Finding new ways of describing the work we do here in the Laboratory is quite helpful. Related is this diagram by James Auger that I recently came across on Nicolas’ blog in which he describes Auger’s diagram showing how paths to the future can be mapped out in a specific way. This might be a side, side project — to create a visualization that describes this action of re-imagining and reperceiving.

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Weekending 07112010

Destroy The Future

Good lord. What happened just then?

Well — I missed a weeknote last week, but I’m not going to do penance. It happens.

I’ve been working — mostly in my head, with a swirl of notes — on two casual commissions for writing, both on the topic of Design Fiction. One is for a forthcoming volume for this journal called, like…Volume. It looks quite curious — reminds me of a cerebral Cabinet Magazine. I think that’ll be a trimmed-of-excess version of the already existing essay, but perhaps without out the Meringue. Along those lines, I continue to catalog these *genre conventions. I’m not entirely sure why, except that they are like the stylings and contours of what makes — in my mind — good Design Fiction, leastways as represented in visual stories.

The second commission is from the Swiss Design Network for their annual proceedings. I’ll be going to their conference in the Fall.

So..those things need to be tied up in short order.

I’ve also spent idle moments pondering a response to the Six Questions posed by the fine friends at Kicker Studios for their forthcoming Device Design Day next month. I think I’ll share some thoughts on the industrial design of Star Trek as a way to talk about the explication/explicitation actions of objects. How objects “speak” or incite/compel/describe actions and social-actions. And as to the Six Questions — I mean..I’m not sure how deliberate I should be in answering them, or thinking of them as some kind historic remarks or anything like that. But they are good ones and they get me thinking — Jack’s are my favorite, still. Criminy his a thoughtfully-funny guy.

Crimminy — and unless the activity of true southern california skateboarding suddenly vanishes without a trace, the going-will-be-slow on the Man Lodge in the back, which is meant to be the Laboratory’s studio. ((The ladder and table saw have spent more time staring at each other and less time being climbed on and/or rip-sawing timbers.))

Sunday July 11 16:16

Daniel Cuervo, Frontside Japan Air. Me? Underneath paying close attention to where he might land.

Why do I blog this? A few notes to remind myself of what I have done but, this week — more to remind myself of what I should perhaps be doing more, or things I should be doing just a little bit less.

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Gibson And The New *Quotidian. A Quote.


Paper map next to its alternative.

From William Gibson’s recent Book Expo American luncheon talk?

“..the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody’s future, somebody else’s past.”

Something that may have once been routine will transform into a curiosity and then to old-fashioned, quaint, peculiar, ancient, confusing, a lost art, alien, &c. On the other hand, today’s fascinating, spectacular will go the way of the normal, routine, everyday, banal, quotidian, boring, unspectacular, old-fashioned, a relic, collectible, museum quality, a prop to tell a story about history and how things once were, to an unknown artifact to be puzzled over in order to understand a bygone era. This perspective of seeing something as even so banal as to be boring is useful, I think, in the design process. A slight shift of perspective that adds temporality to the work one does, puts it on a timeline that is more than the rush-rush of go-to-market working schedules. At the end of it all — it’s either trash or on a pile of other crap in a flea market in Ankara or a vintage shop in Austin or something.

Why do I blog this? A nice juxtoposition that I find useful to consider. When designing things that are meant to be the new, great object, or idea — think of it also, or maybe to start, as the new normal, everyday, perhaps even boring or discarded thing. Why, I am not sure, but I think it helps to round out the considerations, and to look at something fascinating as also something boring, or quaint or even illegible — as if a kid today were to look at a rotary wall phone or paper map.

[Update: Nicolas has his own related remarks on Gibson’s talk at his Liftlabs blog.]
Continue reading Gibson And The New *Quotidian. A Quote.