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Design Fiction

Design Fiction is an essay by Julian Bleecker.

Design, like architecture, is an aspirational endeavor. These are practices that make things, which is to say that it is their essential character to transform ideas into material. ‘Pouring concrete’ is an instructive metaphor for architecture to describe the ritual of translating ideas and principles into a more durable state. In that translation, with all of its complexities and its imbroglios of conflicting and competing tensions – comes the formation of structures that define how space is occupied and moved through. Whether inhabitable space or space marked for transitions and flows, architecture, much like design has the imminent challenge of closing the gap between a vision and its expression as a formed, material object. But there is the pragmatic constraint – it is plainly difficult to construct ideas at the scale in which architecture is expected to operate, especially if the ideas are speculative and visionary. As a result architects spend quite a bit of time communicating their ideas. In fact, we might say that architects spends most of their efforts making props that tell stories about a re-imagined world, or stories that compel us to reflect on the present state of the world. Architects might be the best storytellers in this way, so concentrated are their efforts at finding compelling ways to express their ideas, perhaps knowing full-well that they will not ever be realized to scale. Those props might be sophisticated scale models or technically rich visualizations and renderings. In any case they are materializations for which one does not have to ‘pour concrete.’ The genre of science-fiction has a similar remit – to re-imagine, reflect and refract the present state of things through stories. To a greater or lesser degree, science-fiction has its descriptive story props that help communicate the contours and conduits of these re-imagined worlds. It may be the one of a few literary genres that is expected to deliberate in this way. What might we call design and architecture if we think of these practices as genres of story telling, similar to science-fiction? If they re-imagine the world more than incrementally, but more along the lines of speculative or even radical shifts in the way things are? Or even if the change seems slight, with a small shift in the contours of life as it is lived – that change forces one to reflect on present conditions, as the best of sciencefiction is able to do. Design like architecture would be the practice that creates materializations of ideas in the form of props that start conversations and help re-imagine the world.

 

Architecture Fiction / Design Fiction

If design can be a way of creating material objects that help tell a story what kind of stories would it tell and in what style or genre? Might it be a kind of half-way between fact and fiction? Telling stories that appear real and legible, yet that are also speculating and extrapolating, or offering some sort of reflection on how things are, and how they might become something else? Design fiction as I am discussing it here is a conflation of design, science fact, and science fiction. It is a amalgamation of practices that together bends the expectations as to what each does on its own and ties them together into something new. It is a way of materializing ideas and speculations without the pragmatic curtailing that often happens when dead weights are fastened to the imagination. Design Fiction is a different genre of design. Not realism, but a genre that is forward looking, beyond incremental and makes an effort to explore new kinds of social interaction rituals. As much as science fact tells you what is and is not possible, design fiction understands constraints differently. Design fiction is about creative provocation, raising questions, innovation beyond the ‘up-and-to-the-right’ sort, and exploration. Design fiction works in the space between the arrogance of science fact, and the seriously playful imaginary of science fiction, making things that are both real and fake, but aware of the irony of the muddle – even claiming it as an advantage. It’s a design practice, first of all – because it makes no authority claims on the world, has no special stake in canonical truth; because it can work comfortably with the vernacular and pragmatic; because it has as part of its vocabulary the word ‘people’ (not ‘users’) and all that implies; because it can operate with wit and paradox and a critical stance. It assumes nothing about the future, except that there can be simultaneous futures, and multiple futures, and simultaneous-multiple futures – even an end to everything.

There’s a scene in the film Minority Report, which also happens to be a wonderful prototype of a ubiquitous computing future, in which Tom Cruise’s character Inspector John Anderton manipulates a database of sound and images that are from the near future. In this scene, which just about everyone in the world knows about, Cruise’s character makes orchestra conductor- like gestures, summoning and juxtaposing fuzzy snippets of what is almost about to happen. It’s all happening in a mad-dash effort to piece together a puzzle. The puzzle is, of course, unlocking the mystery of a murder we know will take place, unless the clues of its location and perpetrator are discovered. The example I bring up here is, of course, the gesture interface that Anderton uses to piece together the clue fragments for the future murder he is investigating. As a film element, it 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 so 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 – whatever its called. It would be a simple matter to show a few still images from this sequence as an index to the small bit of argument I’m presenting. But, it is precisely this 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’s a device used to edit sound and images somehow extracted from the future. It’s as if the story is sharing with the audience, who may be reasonably wondering – how do you edit and manipulate fragments of sound and images from the future? How does police evidence gathering work in the year 2054, when evidence is things that have not yet happened – but will? Do they travel into the future through some device and collect things that they bring back? Do detectives still use little baggies and tweezers to collect scraps of bone fragment, sending them to clever forensic scientists back at the lab?

Science-fact and science-fiction are entangled in the Minority Report drama, which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it should happen more. Science-fiction has way more imagination than science-fact and almost certainly circulates knowledge – wherever between fact and fiction that knowledge may live – and ideas more effectively than all the science journals and science journalism in the world. In the production of Minority Report, the idea for such a gestural interface came from somewhere and at least in part from the film’s technical consultant, John Underkoffler. 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 futurist-style projections to help trace a vector from the speculations of the present to their materialization in 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 Ubicomp. 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. Translating laboratory principles into a dramatic film allows for the lab ideas to circulate in a bold fashion, beyond what would be accepted in the typical, conservative research-academic-industrial context. There is a larger military-industrial-light-andmagic complex in effect here, which is precisely the larger, messy tangle through which fact and fiction become indistinguishable through a blend of science and entertainment. The action 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.’ [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.] 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, only with the added design fiction property of 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.’ [Kirby]

The film becomes an opportunity to create a vision of the future but, perhaps more importantly, 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.

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