Design Fiction

Sparking imagination and discussion about the social, cultural, and ethical implications of new technologies through design and storytelling.

What is design fiction?

Opinions differ on this.  The term “Design Fiction” as I understand it was coined by Nokia researcher, and Near Future Laboratory co-founder Julian Bleecker in a presentation given at the Engage Design conference in 2008.  (EDIT: I just learned that the term appeared a few years earlier in Bruce Sterling’s “Shaping Things” in 2005.  At that point it was a pretty unformed idea and I still consider Julian’s talk to be the first formulation of Design Fiction as we currently understand it.)  Bleecker’s talk was given in response to a paper by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell entitled Resistance is Futile: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing that had been circulating in draft form for years before finally appearing in print in early 2014The term has also been used by science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling in a number of talks, and in an ACM Interactions article entitledDesign Fiction.  (it bears noting that where my position on Design Fiction agrees with much of what Sterling has to say that we differ on a fundamental point, about the value of Science Fictional envisioning:  Sterling contends that Design Fiction is about creating scenarios with design at their core, and he has argued that one of the outcomes of design fiction is the ability to use designerly practices to more richly inform the creation of fictional worlds.  I hold that the use of fictional frames provides us with a lens for exploring the social implications of design practice and technology.)

Here is my simple definition: Design Fiction uses fictional scenarios to envision and explain possible futures for design.

UPDATED DEFINITION(!): Design Fiction uses narrative elements to envision and explain possible futures for design.  (I’m more fully embracing Sterling’s use of diegesis as being at the heart of what makes Design Fiction important and useful.)

I saw Sterling speak about Design Fiction to the Emerge conference at ASU in March of 2012 and he emphasized that the key term in Design Fiction is neither Design, nor Fiction:  it is diegesis.  His current definition of Design Fiction is that it is “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.”  Diegesis invokes terminology from film studies to refer to “things which are inside the word of the fiction”.   For example: diegetic music in a film would be a song playing on a radio in a scene; non-diegetic music would be underscoring that the audience hears, but which isn’t present in the narrative world.  When Sterling references diegetic prototypes he is invoking a concept by film scholar David Kirby that has also been referenced by Julian Bleecker.

Kirby uses the term diegetic prototypes to “account for the ways in which cinematic depictions of future technologies demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, viability and benevolence”.  This is a central aspect of design fiction:  it uses a fictional frame to make an argument about a potential future by demonstrating that future in a context that a large public audience can understand.  A common example of design fiction that many people understand is the gestural interfaces in the Spielberg Film Minority Report.  Gestural interfaces had been around and viable for years but there was no narrative to drive their use:  Minority Report gave the public a concrete narrative of gestural interaction that was compelling and memorable.  In the years since, whenever an HCI researcher spoke about gestural interaction to a member of the public, they would be asked “you mean like Minority Report?”…to which they could say: “yes!”

Design Fiction is also a form of what Stuart Reeves would call envisioning:  using fictional scenarios to work through the benefits, challenges, and implications of a new design idea or technology.  I like it because the fictional frame provides an opportunity to imagine a technology in a human context rather than a purely engineering driven scenario.  A design fiction has to imagine a culture of use for a technology or design that has implications for how it is executed and built.  Using fiction to frame design also affords the consideration of the values, meanings, and implications of the design from an ethical and political standpoint, often highlighting social elements of a design’s use and potential misuse.

I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues and friends about Design Fiction lately, and I am realizing that oftentimes the fiction element is misinterpreted as “not real”, rather than “in a story”.  This is a problematic confusion, and it leads to some things being called Design Fictions that really don’t fit the definitions above.  In particular, there is a growing interest in what I’d term “speculative design”: scenarios that envision possible future technologies that don’t really exist yet, but without the narrative trappings that are doing the really heavy lifting in Design Fiction.

The more I look at the growing interest in future-oriented design, envisioning, and speculative design, the more important it becomes to me to carve out a space for stories that are concerned with our designed futures.  Stories are, after all, one of the oldest and most important of human technologies.  Narrative is the first information technology, likely preceding language itself.  We are evolved to take pleasure in narratives, to extract information from stories, and to retain information that has been encoded in narrative forms.  What is easier to remember: a list of random facts, or a story that incorporates those facts into a meaningful causal structure?  Stories take the raw materials of life and cohere them into meaningful forms: they are a tool for reasoning about the world and for communicating that reasoning to each other.

Design Fictions need to be stories, because stories have internal logics that other informational forms lack.  The presence of characters, of point-of-view, of sequenced causally connected events, and of storyworlds creates an ecology in which to situate diegetic prototypes.  They create a point of contact for a reader to empathize-with and build an understanding of a fictional design.  If the fictional design and the fictional world don’t play well together, then the design fiction isn’t doing any meaningful work.  It is comparatively easy to imagine an impossible technology.  It is much harder to really situate that technology within a coherent fictional world.  It is even harder to create a believable bridge from our current world to this new fictional world.  Creating a good Design Fiction takes work, skill, and commitment to moving beyond simplistic and obvious visions of the future.

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