How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Wednesday November 10 13:07

From the Laboratory’s Blog All Kindle ‘Dog-Earred’ Pages Desk, I bring you a few call-outs, quotes and passages from the brilliant bit of chronodiegetic gooeyness called “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu. Great good barely science-fictional novel here. Really a story about loss and our human nature to regain what has gone and re-do and re-play our lives. Its about travel through time but along the way you get to enjoy some good design fiction swerves and curves. A few good things to think about, ponder over and imagine. I particularly enjoy the way that time-travel is intimate with story-telling in the novel’s world — its a kind of technology and industry (military-industrial-narrative-entertainment complex) that goes along with it: conceptual technology, chronodiegetics and diegetic engineering! I’d say this is a strong-recommend. Pretty much no spoilers below.

On the subway, the guy next to me has his head in a news cloud. Paradox is up 16 percent. If I lean in a couple of inches, I can just make out what it says. Up 16 percent in the fourth quarter on a year-over-year basis...
The guy reaches his stop and gets off, leaving his news cloud behind. I love watching the way these clouds break up, little wisps of information trailing off like a flickering tail, a dragon’s tail of typewriter keys and wind chimes, those little monochrome green cloudlets, a fog of fragments and images and words. On busy news days, the entire city is awash in these cloudlets, like fifty million newspapers brought to breathing, blaring life, and then obliterated into a sea of disintegrating light and noise.

The air above our heads is a smoggy miasma: mostly a vaporous fog of news and lies, mixed in with gaseous-form gossip, meme-puffs, and as always, the mists of undirected prayers. Men on corners whisper about secret shows upstairs.

Chrono-Adventurer Survival Kit
There were no exclamation points or any squiggly lines indicating weirdness or jokiness, or any other graphics to signify, This is for kids, this is a toy, this is just make-believe. It just had those words, and it was dead serious..For five dollars and ninety-five cents, plus a self-addressed stamped nine-by-twelve envelope, sent to a PO box somewhere in a faraway state, the good people at Future Enterprises Inc. would send you a survival kit “of great use and convenience for any traveler who finds himself stranded on an alien world.”
Half of me knew it was stupid. I was old enough to know better, but on the other hand, that font! Those letters in all-caps. It didn’t look attractive and well formatted, the kind of thing a kid’s eye would be drawn to; it looked like it came from a typewriter, unevenly spaced, like there was too much text, too many ideas and words and things that someone had to say, had to let people know about, it looked like it came from the mind of a brilliant, lonely, forty-year-old man, sitting somewhere in a basement in that faraway state, half crazy, sure, but on to something.

Up the street a song cloud floats by, sagging a bit, but still intact. I walk faster and catch up with it just in time to hear the ending, a symphony orchestra, the sound full and resplendent, and it is one of those times, you know those times every so often when you hear the right piece of music at the right time, and it just makes you think, This music didn’t come from here, it was given, it fell from some other universe..

It is well established within the field of diegetic engineering that a science fictional space must have an energy density at least equal to the unit average level of a Dirac box, multiplied by pi.

Then Ed farts and its not good. TAMMY’s still crying but starts to giggle, and I’m gagging a little, and then TAMMY starts laughing so hard she almost crashes herself. Ed saves the day again.

We’re going to meet an important man, the director at the Institute of Conceptual Technology, a gleaming black building, behind gates, that sits on top of University Road, up the hill half a mile above town, where they worked on the hard problems. The big ones, like how to keep paradox from destroying the sci-fi world. They were the people my father aspired to be, this man in particular, they lived the lives he longed for, they drove up to those gates every morning and checked with the security guard and showed their ID badges and the gates opened for them, and they drove behind them, up into the compound, the castle of secrets and ideas that only a hundred people in the world knew about, ideas that only a dozen people understood.
Today is the day, that one glorious day in my father’s life. After waiting half a lifetime, half a career, his moment. Today is the day they come calling for him. They, the world, the outside institutional world of money and technology and science fictional commerce. I remember the call. Sometime after our first wobbly orbit and before he was completely sure he knew what he was doing (or rather, before he realized he would never be completely sure about what he was doing), someone had taken notice. They found him, the military-industrial-narrative-entertainment complex, and they wanted to hear his idea.

In Minor Universe 31, quantum decoherence occurs when a chronodiegetic system interacts with its environment in a thermodynamically irreversible way, preventing different elements in the quantum superposition of the system + environment’s wave function from interfering with one another.

Why do I blog this? To keep track of notes from this book. Some are good ideas for some design fiction experiments. In addition — since I read the Kindle edition (a reasoned alternative to buying the bulky hard cover — which I rarely ever buy — and reading it while on a long trip). I’m confident enough that a Kindle book will not likely be around for as long as a normal book that I feel I must spread my notes around the datasphere.
Continue reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

What Innovation

Up and to the Right


Just a super short set of notes from Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I don’t have anything too much in-depth mostly because it’s a fast read, when I found time to read it, and it made me squirm uncomfortably. There was not much that made me stop and smile although I did quite a bit of exasperated sighing along the way.

I think this is because Johnson chose to muddle the study and insights of biology and evolution with the activities of humans following their curiosity, their inspiration to make things, their will to create enterprises, their greed to overwhelm their competitors and make fortunes by whatever means necessary, their hubris, their social-political ambitions, their desire to leave a statue of themselves behind — whatever it is that drives individuals to build and create. Using the study of organisms, biology, the ocean reefs, species evolutions, ecosystems — all of these things as metaphors for creativity, innovation, good ideas in the making — well, that’s just problematic in my mind. You exhaust the really interesting work right out the tailpipe of your story and you’re left only with this pre-existing framework of biology and ocean science and these things to explain how Marconi’s innovations with radio. At some point the analogy becomes the story itself — it’s not like the innovation work *is like* ocean reefs accreting new material. The innovation work is a reef, with new ideas building upon old ones like so. At some points in Johnson’s story human endeavor to make new things and come up with new ideas lose out to the simplicity of the science analogy. Human ingenuity becomes the same thing as the study of species, reefs and other “up and to the right” style evolutionary stories. This makes for a good children’s allegory or grammar school analogy — or a good cocktail party explanation of the irreducibly complex activity of “innovating.” But, it makes a book-length treatment of the complexity of creativity fairly gaunt at best.

Somewhere muddled up in there is an argument that Cities breed innovation because people are so packed in together (like an ocean reef?) and ideas propagate more efficiently in density, which may be the case — but it feels like a vague generalization. It’s easy to get into an argument about whether NYC is more creative than Los Angeles, for example — and things quickly spiral out of control.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the last sentence which might be the argument and even the framework for how the book works — forget all the biology analogies. Just this tweetable little nugget.

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Had Johnson followed the walks of those innovators he was curious about, followed them along their mistakes and noted the ways they borrowed, recycled, reinvented he could have done away with the silly biology analogies. It’s all right there in the hands-on work that’s going on — there’s no need for a big, grand, one-size-fits-all theory about how ideas come to be and how they circulate, or don’t circulate and how they inflect and influence and change the way we understand and act and behave in the world. That’s the “innovation” story — or the way that *change-in-the-way-we-understand-the-world* comes about story.

What I think Johnson is trying to do is in fact deliver some material for that cocktail party conversation — to instill in readers’ minds the idea that good ideas don’t just happen in isolation. They happen because of this idea of the “adjacent possible” — Stuart Kauffman’s idiom describing the multiple possibilities for what can happen because things (science-objects in Kauffman’s notion, like molecules or elements that lead to new science-objects; idea-objects in Steven Johnson’s notion, like steam engines and wine presses that lead to new idea objects like locomotives and printing presses) are proximate. Here’s how Johnson introduces it to us — and he’s not really reminding us that he’s taking a scientific thesis by a guy and using it to describe how innovation works.

“The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations [molecules becoming DNA, e.g.]: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number and it excludes most of the formst that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.”

What could come to be in the world of combinations of molecules and atoms and so forth that happen to be swirling in the same goo — is the basis for Johnson’s thesis about what could be in the world of accreting and “exaption” of ideas. The adjacent possible is meant to describe the what could come to be based on the coexistence and proximity of materials. Things bump into other things and come to form new things under certain conditions. There’s not one possible outcome, but multiple possibilities.

What Johnson does is confuse this for the way that ideas — which are not molecules or atoms swirling in a primordial goo — evolve into possible “shadow futures.” Will and cunning and gile and ambition and money and access to money — these and many other non-biological factors shape how good ideas come to be. ((As well as horrible, wretched, resource-wasting ideas.)) I mean — this is a troubling way to make an argument from the get-go. I don’t think you can just willy-nilly take a thesis from biology (or hypothesis, or lens, or view of how things work) and then use it to describe something that is never as pure as what we understand “nature” to be or “natural history” — he is not creating a story that describes what happens in the world of ideas, spun and spurned by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture and society and struggling for credibility and authority. And that’s just a problem. The coordinates and biases and ways-of-knowing are all wrong at some level. The units are way off. It’s an allegory at best that misses 99% of the mishegoss of creating knowledge and meaning; an analogy that basically filters out all the work of humans interacting in a different way than the way that molecules and atoms interact. It’s another one of those kinda annoying uses of science to explain society which starts you down the path of immediately assuming that science isn’t society by other means, or that science isn’t already a social enterprise or — worse — that science has it all figured out.

Anyway — I got suckered in because the book has the word “innovation” in it. These sorts of books with titles that are didactic are suckers bait. Its got this funny title about being a “natural history” of innovation and that seemed polite and humble, rather than prescriptive like a lot of business books tend to be. (“10 Steps to Improving Your Organizations Innovation Prospects!” — or things like that.) But then it’s less humble when you realize that this is The natural history of innovation that’s been written. N’ah — I know he’s probably being provocative with this title. But, still — I found it a bit bold. Because inside is not a natural history at all, but rather an argument made through a number of examples. The argument is to dispel the notion that good ideas — ideas that make incremental changes in the graph, making things move up and to the right to a greater or lesser degree — come from a guy sitting around by himself in a lab or basement. Rather, good ideas come about because of their proximity to other, perhaps disparate activities — other intriguing things happening nearby. Johnson’s prop is the ocean reef — and perhaps this is the joke in the title because the reef is understood to be something natural (as if) and therein lies the natural character of innovation.

Couple of notes, so long as they were jotted down while I was reading this:

He has a curiously muddled appendix of good ideas at the end, with the electric battery (1800) — every good idea has a date — sitting alongside of sunspots (1610), as if sunspots were a good idea as opposed to an observation that becomes relevant and topical. I can only imagine that these are intractably complex things that are as dense a knot of activities both purposeful, willful and incidental as one can imagine. Yet here they are rather cavalierly given a sentence or two and a date stamp as if they appeared as a good idea suddenly.

He diverts detractors to his approach of going broad and shallow by saying that there is value in surveying and drawing conclusions from many short case studies and drawing four quadrant graphs that even further simplify the points. The alternative is to be deep and thick, or to go into the laboratory — talking to people to suss out the meaning and history and all that of technology. The broad and shallow perspective is not as thorough. It’s a gloss, but even worse — it’s not substantive and opinion at best. This is fine, but the reader never really knows what they’re losing in the trade.

The argument is an engaging story — a good story. It’s an argument insisting on a POV and a thesis about an intractably complicated social/cultural/political/economic entanglement that cannot possibly be distilled to a core, to an essential character and way-of-being except in the most simple ways which never can possibly be much more than a fairy tale useful only for the most basic of explanations you might use to tell a child why the sky is blue, or as an allegory — it’s certainly not a history, natural or otherwise.

If you want to hear a really irksome panel discussion with Kevin Kelly and Johnson, check out this Radiolab podcast: What Does Technology Want?. It’s curious to me that Johnson and Kelly seem to jump on Robert Krulwich to the point of basically saying — “what’s wrong with you? don’t you believe in technology’s autonomy?”
Continue reading What Innovation

Designing Fiction in Volume Q.

Killer Pod

For my record, below is the essay that appeared in Volume Quarterly, Issue 25.

I just want to say that, from my perspective, right now — Design Fiction is quite useful as a way to say the things that one imagines and that might be seen as outrageous, or weird, or even “out of scope.” It’s a way of thinking about what could be in the quite near future because things *can change, even more than we would expect, quite soon. It does not necessarily take epic, big science, big politics or systemic upheaval to go from the world we have right at this moment, to a world in which the pulse and flow of life makes this moment seem arcane, old-fashioned or quaint. What ever happened to the dial tone? And complete sentences?

Julian Bleecker & Edwin Gardner

They say that the most convincing lies are the ones that stay “close” to the truth, probably this goes for good fiction as well. If fiction looses all relation with reality it becomes fantasy, escapism or utopia. To make good fiction, one needs a special relation with the truth. Telling a story about a possible world, or making a prototype of an idea that stay close to what we understand as reality and the everyday adds a degree of legibility. These things seem more possible than something that has no clear relationship to “today.” The truth of the present becomes a source that serves as a departure point. What we know today is where we evolve our understanding of how things are and how they could possibly be in the near future. It is the reality from which we pursue some small change in order to understand how things could be different from our expectations as to what the future will be. This might sound as a cryptic description of design, or science fiction. Or perhaps it is both: Design fiction.

Science fiction is the intelligent extrapolation of the present into alternate futures. These are futures that have a high degree plausibility which can be recognized and are legible because they have traces of the present. Interesting scifi futures are not just about progress, but about exploring the social and cultural as much as much as the technological. Design fiction is a practice of fiction that operates somewhere in between science fact and science fiction. Design as a practice of fiction is somewhat different from design proper. The constraints of science are defined by fact and by empiricism. That which cannot be measured, that which cannot be observed one way or another is considered irrelevant or non-existent by science fact. Science fiction, on the other hand, is expected to explore and probe those things that science fact dismisses. It is truly a kind of experimental art in this respect. Science fiction investigates possibilities extensively and with a wider set of allowances than science fact ever could. Add to science fact and science fiction the making and materializing rituals of design, which in the best of cases does not wait for something to be deemed “possible” or even reasonable before investing itself to imagining what could be, and you have a wonderful hybrid practice for extrapolating today into the near future. This is design fiction — a practice of making and creating that works as an interchange of concepts traveling back and forth between science fact and fiction.

In the scientific community mixing up these “genres” or disciplines is equal to blasphemy, or at least frowned upon. People who claim science fact as the practice idiom in which they do their work would never really say that they imagine things beyond “fact.” Certainly they enter into a sort of science fiction, which they might describe as speculating and “brainstorming.” This is a kind of science fiction that is made legitimate by calling its result hypotheticals, or by explaining these speculations as “theoretical prototypes”, or “just ideas” as if to say, “I know this is silly and not really possible, nevertheless..” These are explanations that are like perimeter alarms going off around disciplinary turf, indicating that we’re beginning to breech the hard, well-policed border between the proper work of science fact and the murky terrain of science fiction.

In a similar way there are science fiction idioms that define the boundaries of the genre. For example, “hard” science fiction. In this case “hard” refers to the rigor and the hard-set scientific principles necessary to support the accuracy of any science content within the story. Hard science in fiction must be explainable by extrapolations of present science fact. Hard science fiction is the perimeter alarm from the other side, as science fiction makes incursions into the knowledge and truths of science fact. One could say that when science fiction comes close to present-day reality, or state of the art technology it transforms into another “in-between” genre like a “technothriller” instead of “scifi”. It’s close enough to the present day, to the quotidian that it is no longer precisely fiction. This is the way that science fiction extrapolates and speculates based on the present, but perhaps more importantly in the scifi novel or film these extrapolations are worked out at the scale of society. This is how science fiction can have a direct impact on the human condition. The characters and the narrative are provided with a playing-field in which new dynamics of existence unfold into persuasive thinking exercises that, at some level we all engage on. The best science fiction makes us think about the future and our place in it.

Despite the boundaries and perimeter alarms, ideas, people and objects travel between disciplines and leave their traces. With science fact and fiction this is no different. Design fiction lives in between the disciplinary perimeters and it makes this exchange productive. This interrelationship between science fact and science fiction is very important. It reveals how culture circulates, especially the formation of ideas, knowledge and their object proxies. Which ideas get to circulate out in the world and why? How do ideas obtain their “mass” and accumulate attention and conversation. What about the ideas that become sidelined and obsolete?

Following two examples we can get an idea what happens in this “in between” where the practice of designing fiction is at work. First we start at fact and see how it influences fiction in the production of Spielberg 2002 film Minority Report. Second we’ll look at fiction and how it influences fact, in the case of the development of Virtual Reality and Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp)[1].

Tuesday October 26 15:22

Fiction follows Fact: Minority Report

[image: stills from Minorty Report’s Gestural Interface]

Between Philip K. Dick’s short story The Minority Report through to the Steven Spielberg production of a film based on that story, an interchange of ideas and objects took place. This happened through the activities of scientists in their labs, conversations with film directors, props makers and experts on the future, back through to special effects artisans working in their shops with their film production software. Following just a few of these linkages shows how easily science-fact and science-fiction swap ideas, properties and objects.

The story of Minority Report takes place in 2054 and follows inspector John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) who works in at “Precrime” a police department specialized in solving murders before they happen, through apprehending criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “precogs”. This foreknowledge can be extracted from the precogs brains in the form of moving images and sounds, in which Anderton searches for clues on where, when and who are involved in the crime to be committed. Anderton can manipulate (zoom, playback, pause, remove, pan, save, etc.) these images and sounds through a gestural interface. This gestural interface is a wonderful prototype of a ubiquitous computing future, where a database of sound and images are manipulated through orchestra conductor- like gestures, summoning and juxtaposing fuzzy snippets of what is almost about to happen.

In the production of Minority Report, the idea for such a gestural interface came from somewhere and at least in part from John Underkoffler, who was the film’s technical consultant. Underkoffler was a member of the Tangible Media Group at M.I.T., and had participated along with a panel of luminaries in providing some speculations as to what the future of Minority Report might be experienced based on their insights and their extrapolations of the current trends in the technology world. What was needed were some projections to help trace a vector from the present to the future of 2054, when the film takes place.

From a project at the Tangible Media Group called “The Luminous Room” were a number of “immersive” computing concepts that were drawn from some of the principles of ubiquitous computing. The principles are related to the idea that computers might become more directly integrated into the architecture of the environments that people occupy. Rather than manipulating them with a keyboard and mouse, people might use gestures for direct input.

The gestural control of the clue-construction device as a film element has a well-balanced mix of visual dynamics that will keep today’s science fiction film audience riveted, and legible interaction rituals that allow the audience to follow the gestures closely to develop an understanding of precisely what is going on, what is being manipulated and how bits of clue are juxtaposed and re-arranged as one might do with a puzzle. Special attention is placed on the precision of the gestures that Anderton uses in order to manipulate the fragments of video and sound — zooming in on a bit of imagery with hand-over-hand gesture; deleting a few things by moving them with a forceful and dismissive sweep into this interface’s version of today’s user interface trash can.

There’s more than the clue-construction device that Anderton uses, it is the longer bit of story that I want to highlight, and not just the instrumental technology. Not the story itself — the pre-murder. Rather, I want to highlight what the story does so as to fill out the meaning of the clue-construction device, to make it something legible despite its foreignness. It is a kind of science fact-fiction work that effectively tries out some ideas within a film’s narrative. It’s sort of like prototyping — sketching out possibilities by building things, wrapping them around a story and letting them play out as they might.

More formally, this is what David A. Kirby calls the “diegetic prototype.”[2] It’s a kind of technoscientific prototyping activity knotted to science fiction film production that emphasizes the circulation of knowledge and ideas. It is like a concept prototype, but since we are designing fiction the added property is a story into which the prototype can play its part in a way different from a plain old demonstration. The prototype enlivens the narrative, moving the story forward while at the same time subtly working through the details of itself.

“..scientists and engineers can also create realistic filmic images of “technological possibilities” with the intention of reducing anxiety and stimulating desire in audiences to see potential technologies become realities. For scientists and engineers, the best way to jump start technical development is to produce a working prototype. Working prototypes, however, are time consuming, expensive and require initial funds. I argue in this essay that for technical advisors cinematic depictions of future technologies are actually “diegetic prototypes” that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, benevolence, and viability. Diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage even over true prototypes: in the diegesis these technologies exist as “real” objects that function properly and which people actually use.” [3]

The film becomes an opportunity to create a vision of the future but, perhaps more important, to share that vision to a large public audience. In specific cases, such as the evocative “gesture interface” concepts Underkoffler introduced into the film’s story and its production design, ideas gather a kind of knowledge-mass. They become culturally legible and gain weight and currency. We “get” the idea of using conductor-like gestures to interact with our information technology because it is given to us through the film, it’s pre-science, the discussions that evolve in media and with friends, the formation of companies to further develop the ideas, bolstered on the cultural literacy with touch and gesture interactions, and so on. To gain cultural legibility takes more than a scientist demonstrating an idea in a laboratory. What is needed is a broader, context — such as one that great storytellers and great filmmakers can put together into a popular film, with an engaging narrative and some cool gear.

The follow-on to this science fiction film introduction of gesture interfaces to a large public audience are more gesture interfaces, each one staking out Minority Report as a point of conception, either explicitly or implicitly. It’s as if Minority Report serves as the conditions of possibility for more and further explorations of the possibility for gesture interaction — whether touchbased gestures, as in the Apple iPhone and other techniques, or free-space and tracking gesture interactions, like the Nintendo Wii, for example. This is not precisely the case: we are not interested in claims as to priority, ownership and who did what first. What is much more interesting is the brocade of activity that weaves in and through the fictional/factual special effects props of Minority Report.

[Image: Google ‘minority report’ search results]
[Image: CNN]

In 2002, Minority Report was released, which we may describe as the diegetic prototype for the gestural interface concept. In this segment, CNN reports on the real-world prototype in the year 2005. The following years trace a knot of interpretations and reflections as the idea of a gesture-based interaction circulates and gains “idea mass” — the “Google” of “Minority Report Interface” the breadth of interpretations and the notion that moving ideas to their materialization can happen through the lens of fiction.

Fact Follows Fiction: HITLab

[Image: guy with VR glasses]

In the early nineties at the University of Washington the Human Interface Technology Lab, or HITLab was working quite hard on virtual reality (VR), a kind of immersive, 3D environment that, today, one might experience as something like Second Life. The technology had a basic instrumental archetype canonized in a pair of $250,000 machines (one for each eyeball) called, appropriately, the RealityEngine. With video head mount that looked like a scuba-mask, one could experience a kind of digital virtual world environment that was exciting for what it suggested for the future, but very rough and sparse in its execution.

One of the informal socialization rituals of acquainting yourself to the other members of the HITLab team — and to the idioms by which the lab shared its collective imaginary about what exactly was going on here, and what was VR. Anything that touches the word “reality” needed some pretty fleet-footed references to help describe what’s going on, and a good set of anchor points so one can do the indexical language trick of “it’s like that thing in …”

For the HITLab the closest thing to a shared technical manual was William Gibson’s novel “Neuromancer” which was encouraged to read closely before you got too far involved and risked the chance of being left out of the conversations that equated what HITLab was making with Gibson’s “Cyberspace Deck”, amongst other science fiction props. This is from a paper that Randy Walser from Autodesk wrote around the same time:

“In William Gibson’s stories starting with Neuromancer, people use an instrument called a “deck” to “jack” into cyberspace. The instrument that Gibson describes is small enough to fit in a drawer, and directly stimulates the human nervous system. While Gibson’s vision is beyond the reach of today’s technology, it is nonetheless possible, today, to achieve many of the effects to which Gibson alludes. A number of companies and organizations are actively developing the essential elements of a cyberspace deck (though not everyone has adopted the term “deck”). These groups include NASA, University of North Carolina, University of Washington, Artificial Reality Corp., VPL Research, and Autodesk, along with numerous others who are starting new R&D programs.”

The objects that authors like William Gibson craft through words are kinds of designed objects that help fill out the vision, inciting conversations, providing backdrops, set pieces and props. The Cyberspace Deck. Gibson wrote about it and it had a story that was compelling enough that it may as well be built. The written objects creates a goal line, a critical path toward the successful completion of the VR mythos. Together, the linkages that connect fact and fiction are ways of filling in that shared imaginary, which then knits the social formations of everyone and everything together. Bruno Latour would remind us that this is the socialization of objects. Technology is precisely the socialization of ideas via object proxies. You don’t need to look much further than this VR anecdote to appreciate how technology is always already the assemblage of social practices. It happens in the circulation of ideas and stories that draw in a multitude of perspectives, and ways of expressing the imagination, from circuit diagrams to galactic adventures.

In 2009 Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell write “‘Resistance is Futile’: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing.” This essay does something quite bold in that it looks at the collective imagination of the Ubicomp field (scientists, researchers, and so on but, curiously, not its objects and props and prototypes) alongside of the science fiction imaginary as seen through a number of science fiction shows (Dr.Who, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Blake’s 7 and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) that are arguably part of the shared history of Ubicomp researchers. They make an important argument in the context of design fiction that the narrative themes and cultural implications within the science fiction stories are properties that participate in design practices whether you like it or not. These themes are only in science fiction in their examples because they are largely ignored and considered irrelevant in most technological design practices. But allowing these themes to “participate” in technological design has value to the design practice and its methodology.

[Image:fanart – Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, 1975]
Fan art evolved to the point of speculating about the technical particulars of props from science fiction is found in these diagrams from The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, by Franz Joseph (1975) a technical artist and designer who worked during the day for General Dynamics. Joseph’s technical fan art translates the science fiction into a kind of science fact to the extent that he considers the materialization of the various artefacts. Patterns are given for constructing the Star Fleet uniforms worn within the science fiction. Architectural diagrams are drafted for the space ships. Regulation patterns for fleet colors and banners are specified. Organization charts for command and operational hierarchies are mapped out. There are design schematics for technologies that only exist in the science fiction.

Culture “embeds”, as it always must. There is no pure instrumentality in technologies, or sciences for that matter. The arrival of an idea, or concept, or scientific “law” comes from somewhere, never “out there” but always rather close to home. Bell and Dourish are telling us this in their essay using the particular example of Ubicomp. Ubicomp endures its own cultural specificity and debt to things like desire for specific near futures that are given an aspiration portrait in, first of all, the imaginative vision of Mark Weiser[4] and, second of all, some good old fashioned near future science fiction. They are both techniques for connecting the dots between dreams, the imagination, ideas and their materialization as “shows” that talk about the future, exhibit artifacts and prototypes. Those “shows” can take the form of a television production, film, laboratory activity, research reports, annual gatherings of die-hard fans at Ubicomp conferences and Star Trek conventions, and so on. They’re all swirling conversations that are expressions of a will, desire, creativity and materiality around some shared imaginaries.

Bell and Dourish are reminding us that the implications of culture are not something that happens after design. They are always part of the design. They are always simultaneous with the activity of making things. The culture happens as the design does. This is in every way what design is about. It is less about surfaces and detailing, and perhaps only about making culture. Making culture is that things-designed become part of the fabric of our lives, shaping, diffracting, knitting together our relations between the other people and objects around us. Making culture is something that engineering has so effectively and, at times, dangerously pushed out of view, which is why design should participate more actively and conscientiously in the making of things. Engineering tends to start with specifications, assuming that terse instrumentalities and operating parameters evacuate the cultural implications. Design brings culture deliberately. It’s already there, this culture thing — design is just able to provide the language and idioms of culture, a language which engineering has long ago forgotten. Social or cultural “issues” or “implications” are always already part of the context for design. These are not issues that arise from a technical object once it is delivered to people, as if this act of putting an object in someone’s hands then somehow magically transforms it into something that, now set loose to circulate in the wild cultural landscape, produces “issues” or creates implications. It is the case that the social or cultural questions are always already part of the operational procedures of the engineering work, never separate. One need only look at specifications and read closer than the surface to see where an how “culture” is the technical instrument. Despite the fact that it looks like a bunch of circuits and lifeless plastic bits, there is culture right there.

[1] Ubicomp: (ubicomp) is a post-desktop model of HYPERLINK “” human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities. In the course of ordinary activities, someone “using” HYPERLINK “” ubiquitous computing engages many computational devices and systems simultaneously, and may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so. This model is usually considered an advancement from the HYPERLINK “” desktop paradigm and also described as pervasive computing or HYPERLINK “” ambient intelligence

[2] Deigesis: a narrative or plot, typically in a movie

[3]David A. Kirby, “Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-World Technological Development” forthcoming in Social Studies of Science, a journal.

[4] Mark D. Weiser (July 23, 1952 – April 27, 1999) was a chief scientist at HYPERLINK Xerox PARC in the United States. Weiser is widely considered to be the father of HYPERLINK ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988. Mainly through his piece HYPERLINK The Computer for the 21st Century” – HYPERLINK Scientific American Special Issue on Communications, Computers, and Networks, September, 1991

! – This essay is primarily based on “Design Fiction” by Julian Bleecker published online at the Near Future Laboratory: HYPERLINK “”

Cinema City

Or…in this case, cinematic architecture. Jonathan Rennie presented a project yesterday that I found most fitting in the vein of design fiction / architecture fiction. For the studio class run by Geoff Manaugh (@bldgblog) called Cinema City, a graduate studio that starts with this brief and asks the students to consider what they may. There were some interesting projects. This one in particular stood out for me. It was an unconventional approach in an architecture class to present a series of fictions about the future of cinema.

Monday December 13 14:06

Continuous Machinic Cinema

This project explores a particular narrative for the future of cinema and, in turn, it proposes new possibilities for the moving image and its place, content, viewers & screen.

The project proposes a scenario of technological discovery and development where:

** Guerilla film distribution occurs in new places via Lawn Bowl and Shot-put film grenades;

** With anamorphic lenses the perpendicular hegemony of conventional cinema watching is broken;

A shift in content to QR coded cinema is predicted and, in turn..

** A future point where non-narrative images are viewed by post-human machine optics is proposed, with screens affecting the fabric of the city.

The project is a sneak preview for a future of cinema, proposing a continuous cinema that is freed from both the spatial confines of the movie house and the literary expectations of narrative — told by and to non-human machines.

FInal Panels_Further Revised.indd

In the first proposal, guerilla film distribution is done by throwing film grenades, a “weapon” first proposed by the Soviets and designed to be surreptitiously deployed during the Olympics. The weapons are found again by Jonathan during his project research, including documentation and some diagrams describing the clandestine Soviet project.

In the second proposal, Skynet — an extraterrestrial orbital satellite platform — finds QR codes in the landscape of earth. The QR codes embed stories and films that the satellites share with one another. Over time, as they see the same films over and over again and become bored — they begin to look for QR codes elsewhere, perhaps interpreting barcode-like structures in the landscape at different wavelengths — for instance an infrared folliage rendering may appear to contain QR codes. They seek out new films in this way, perhaps even instructing terrestrial machines, such as the cranes at loading docks or tractors in large farm fields, to construct new QR codes containing new cinema and stories.

Still 1

Jonathan also ginned up a sort of graphic novella/short story to go along with the proposal so that each QR code that you see in his poster documentation points to a page in the comic. You can see the full graphic novella here: QR Cinema

Why do I blog this? This is one of those architecture projects that plays at the far end of the spectrum of architecture’s inherent speculative nature. The spectrum runs from the pragmatic *planning what will be* (traditional floor-plan stuff) all the way across to *speculating to help think* (architecture fiction), with *proposing (cardboard models, photoshop site renderings, camera-tracked little films showing the space as it would be) somewhere in the middle.

I enjoy considering the spectrum of realizations as things move from idea to their material form. In this case, Jonathan has used the architectural brief to propose a speculation about machines reading the landscape to interpret meaning, or to watch movies that are referred to by the QR codes they (think?) they see. This is using the landscape as an interface, which I find super intriguing.

What does this help us think about? Well — it’s a fun Sci-Fi comic he’s done here, so there’s that on its own. Aside from this, we can start to think about Cyphertecture — embedding machine-readable (or maybe only-for-machine) texts in physical structures. Like, for example, this bit of landscape cyphertecture from several years ago

Space Invaders: Google Earth Edition

DIY Media? Fan Art in Google Earth

Space Invaders upper right..Cylon Raider bottom left.

Geoff has the more lucid discussion of this point, but suppose cornice details became machine readable physical cuts and bumps that would represent some meaning for, say…Google Street View cars? I’m not saying this is entirely practical, but I could see a day when bold marks like this that are required to exist (for any number of reasons — local services to identify what building they are at definitively, etc.) on new structures. This then becomes turned into an aesthetic to make it more pleasing as a facade, and so on. In any case — Jonathan’s work certainly gives me things to think about in an entirely fun, imaginative way.
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A Wry Look At Wheels On Luggage



Why do I blog this? The idiom “wheels on luggage” has been one we’ve been exploring here, not so much to get the precise history of it (although that is interesting), but because of what it stands for. Change from one set of circumstances to another from which you look back and wonder — how could things have ever been otherwise? Or, because the change is not due to technological innovation (which is what so much is assumed to pivot) but from an innovation that is simple, direct and requires no billion dollar budgets, scores of PowerPoints, workshops galore and team off-sites. I love this kind of change — much more than the technical variety because they remind me that big change can come from small, simple alterations that just make things better. Some people like big technical imbroglios. While I don’t not like technical things — the power of one person to just sort of *shrug* and screw a couple of wheels onto the bottom of something is quite provocative. Small things done exceptionally well. ((A line of scholarly inquiry as to the social, cultural, political and technological concerns that broadly fit within the study of Science Technology and Society, or Science and Technology Studies. Fair Use, I’d say.))
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Weekending 12122010: Clarity via Complexity

Thursday December 09 17:50

A week spent last in the Nordic EU discovering the knots and twists and snarls and kinks of the imbroglio that goes along with executing on damn good design. On the one hand there was the work of workshops meant to work *upon the work; on the other hand, there are the traces that appear as — if illuminated by forensic investigators UV light — the trails of interconnected relationships, goals, aspirations, roadblocks, paths of hope, begrudging words, encouraging words, optimistic personalities and personality disorders, cues and clues as to how things work, or how they do not; who talks to who, and who does not; where things can get done, and where they will not, despite everything. Very intriguing. Certainly not unusual activities; just the analysis and awareness that comes with trying to understand, and that from the perspective of a science-technology-studies kind of person. It’s like being inside a Latourian analysis of the making of things. I should draw a map.
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The Wall

Thursday December 02 09:48

This is an interesting paper called The WALL: participatory design workspace in support of creativity, collaboration, and socialization written about workspaces using various techniques to support creativity, collaboration and “socialization.” The paper describes and advanced design studio for a “Nordic EU” country and the use of a wall — in this case, a real wall, not a video wall or something like this — and the ways in which design work forms on, in and around the wall. This is interesting to me because of the direct opposite of typical assumptions from the world of technology where high-tech is often used — video conferencing systems, telepresence devices, and so on. In this particular studio, the wall becomes a place where work happens. Things that go up on the wall become projects or intersect or leak-into other projects.

The challenge in this particular study (two or three days of observation) is that the studio has a sibling that is a great distance away so the team is separated by space as well as a significant time difference. THe challenges in this case are to share the wall in some fashion — which is not entirely solved. Various approaches are tried — sending high resolution photographs, creating large format plotter-prints to create a facsimile of the wall from one studio to the other, etc. Some video conferencing can happen, but even this is only effective at communicating verbally because the persistence of shared images, sketches and so on is low — it is only around for the call. The bulk of the design activities happen with people together, in the same physical space, standing/sitting/couching/laughing at and near the wall. Casual encounters while walking by a team working on a specific bit of material at the wall can inflect and inform the work in substantial ways — even by members of the design team not directly assigned to a specific project. In fact, it sounds like every member of the team is working on every project to one extent or another by virtue of the fact that the projects wrap around the studio on the wall. Walking by representations of a project can spark an insight or ideas for other projects. Material from one stream of work can find its way into another quite naturally as the boundaries of ownership, share-ability, and so on are made permeable in a creative, productive way by the maturity of the team, the transparency the wall facilitates (everything is there), the rather flat-ish structure of the design team, and the implicit trust amongst the team (no one needs to be policed or watched; attendance isn’t taken, &c.)

Why do I blog this? I’m very interested in what makes creative, productive, advanced design/technology teams work well. This idea of the analog wall — a pin-up wall — is simple, does not need to be plugged-in, allows for sharing and viewing and collaborating.
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Northern Nordic

Monday December 06 23:06

Monday December 06 13:27

Just a quick note to remind myself that I’m in the northern Nordic for the week, translating and workshopping and clarifying much of the work that has gone on in the studio over the last many months. It’s quite interesting to see how important the communication work is in the design process. Not so much showing as alliance building and enrolling people into something that is new to them and foreign in the sense that it has come from *outside — not their studio, not their work. But then — how do you make it theirs so that it becomes “ours” all for the common good. It’ll be a fun, wintery few days doing this. Always learning. It’s also intriguing to bring advanced design, which has humility as represented by the people who have done the work — into the more execution-oriented variety of design. It’s just design at the end of the day, different ways of making things better, each with their own assumptions about what it takes to do the work of better-making.

Continue reading Northern Nordic