News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Discursive Design Fiction

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

When I posted yesterday, I included a mockup of a potential future of Facebook. This is an example of a design fiction. The phrasing is Bruce Sterling’s play on science fiction, one that I like very much. As a culture, we’ve gotten used to technological visions of the future, usually played out in a post-apocalyptic robotic dystopia. The normal fair includes holograms, eye tracking, heads-up displays, cyborgs, responsive environments, voice interfaces, and gestural dance-like interactions. Think Star Trek, Bladerunner, the Matrix, and Snow Crash: cyberpunk culture.

But these science fictions have a way of finding their way into technological reality, albeit often only in aspiration. Google, and their this-is-so-ridiculous-it-can’t-possibly-be-true glasses project is just the latest example of a large, primarily male, primarily engineering community embracing a mainstay of science  fiction and trying to make it real, because, man, that would be really cool. But the only thing new about Google’s vision of the future is that it isn’t Microsoft’s vision of the future. Microsoft has, for the last twenty years, been cranking out videos that show the Matrix coming to life in our living rooms. Never mind the fact that they continue to be wrong; the most interesting part of these videos, in my opinion, is that they continue to be aspirations. The engineers that make these, or the marketing teams that rally around them, really seem to want the world to be this way!

There’s another form of fiction that’s being used to describe how the world might be. Design fiction is using the powers of design to envision a future. It’s something designers typically do in the context of their work; they create new world visions, draw storyboards, and begin to visualize how things can and should be. You may not have seen many of these design fictions, because they are usually used as an interim step towards a more substantial whole: they are a throw-away part of the process of getting to innovations and new product and service ideas. But I’ll describe what I’ve found to be the prototypical style of the narrative, used to present an idealized design vision of the future: a design fiction.

It’s 8am, and Bob’s phone is beeping. Bob smiles as he wakes up. It’s going to be a big day: he’s pitching a new client! He jumps out of bed, and turns his alarm off, which causes the coffee maker to start brewing his favorite brew. He jumps in the shower, and his phone serenades him with his favorite songs. As he gets out of the shower and starts brushing his teeth, his phone begins to orate the sports scores of his favorite teams. Bob likes to hear them in a thick, sensual Swedish accent.

Bob heads to the kitchen and grabs a cup of coffee. He opens the newspaper, and sees that the Yankees won again. He taps his phone on the score, and a video highlight of the game begins playing on his phone. Suddenly, he realizes he’s lost track of time – he better get going! He jumps in his car, and his phone transfers the video to the large, heads-up display projected on the road in front of him. He drives to work, watching the baseball highlights, and hitting all the green lights.

This design fiction is a romanticized story of ubiquitous computing, where everything is great and we can all spend the majority of our time basking in a naïve and unobstructed mindless form of entertainment consumption. This is what Steven Johnson describes as “banal reveries of sending faxes from the beach.”: it points to a poverty of imagination, as the author has made no effort to truly understand what a life of technological continuity might actually feel like. While I would hope this “beautiful day” would be obtusely tongue-in-cheek enough, I may need to make it clear that I think this would be an awful, awful series of interactions, and god help me if my coffee maker ever makes coffee without my explicit permission.

These idealized design fictions have the same problem as the science fiction scenes of Google and Microsoft. They aren’t probable; they aren’t even possible. I’ll leave the lecture on suitability for another time; the point here is that a vision of the future that relies on constant, edge-free, smooth and malleable technological end to end interactions is just plain impossible, and we all know it. Our infrastructure is a patchwork quilt of platforms and quasi-standards, human behavior is fuzzy and often unpredictable, and the system ubiquity required to make any of these visions true is simply not happening any time soon. Our poster child for walled-garden cross-device end-to-end interactions, Apple, can’t even figure out how to harmonize Home Sharing, iTunes Match, Ping, Genius, and the iTunes Store; their best-in-class music solution is just a mess of disparate functions that map to the organizational hierarchy of the company. It’s almost like these damn people and their damn social structures keep messing up the simplicity of the technology.

And so creating visions of the future – be it the dystopia of science fiction or the utopia of design fiction – may be a great artistic endeavor, but is definitely a waste of practical effort.

But there is a third form of vision of the future that might be worthwhile in an age where a congress that doesn’t understand the first thing about technology is just itching to legislate it. This alternative vision of the future takes the form of discursive design: a design that is intended to provoke thought, and is never intended to actually be built. I’ll repeat that, in case it gets lost somewhere along the way: the goal of a discursive design is to illustrate a future and provoke thought, but not to actually be built. You might call that art. Discursive sounds cooler. Allan Chochinov tells a story of a great example from one of his classes, where a student produced this wonderful lollypop holder:

And the class instantly wanted to know how to go about making it real. Real, as in manufactured out of plastic by the millions, and sold at every Wal-Mart in the country. His response to the class is simple, subtle, and powerful: it’s already real, as a discursive design, and that’s all it needs to be. Further, that’s all it should be, because it’s sufficient as a probe of culture. The image delights the senses in all the ways it would if real, and it simultaneously calls us out on our ridiculous culture of plastic excess. It’s a vision of the future, it’s discursive, and it’s design. (You owe it to yourself to watch the whole video of Allan, here.)

Design is about bringing things to life. Most of us can’t envision things that don’t yet exist, and so we need help: we need a visual crutch. And sometimes, or frequently, as it would appear, we need a visual crutch of the worst case scenario. It’s starting to become more and more apparent that a worst-case scenario for our present day is not robots shooting lasers at each other over a dark abyss of spaceships. There’s nothing post-apocalyptic about it, and it’s not even nefarious. But it’s right around the corner, and it’s driven by all of the usual marketing, advertising, float valuation, post-IPO investor value best practices. It’s what unites Google, Facebook, Viacom, News Corp, and any other digital player that relies on advertising as a core business model. It’s the worst case scenario of targeted, profile-driven, faceted and algorithmic advertising.

I showed an example yesterday; I’ll show another here.

Sometimes, we can’t see things until we literally see them. Here’s a challenge to anyone reading who has not yet actually created a Google Adwords campaign, or initiated a Facebook ad campaign. Do it, do it now. And when you’re done – now that you understand how the internet really works – think about a discursive future. It’s a design fiction, and it’s a hell of a lot more likely than any science fiction you’ve seen recently.

1 Comment »
  • Tamas

    Why would you not think, that the Google and Microsoft Videos are not discursive design? Why would you think, that the Google and Microsoft Videos are not discursive design?
    They are as, or even more discursive (because trying to be complete) than your example of a

    lollypop holder, which in essence is not discursive because its easy to make and therefore

    already real…(and useless, which means we shouldn’t produce it. Case closed.)

    Of course those videos are visions you might not want to have, but they emerge out of a

    corporate thinking and are okay to look at, because they give you as a designer a framework

    to play with, maybe a boundary to a direction you should or should not be heading towards.

    Just think of the Google Goggles with Advertising Video.
    Companies should produce much more of their visions, than marketing videos, because marketing

    consists of lies mostly, but visions are the motivation of those real people working in that

    real company that produces real objects, which, whether they are possible or not, tells you a

    lot about a multimillion dollar companies ideology. It gives you the opportunity to give them

    feedback, a response on how you think their values should be.

    Science Fiction, in any form, is positive to the designers mindset, it is you as a designer,

    who has to have the technological knowledge and the social/cultural oversight, to design

    something that is technologically viable and changes the world to a better place. If you are

    only capable of producing pictures of things you dont really want to be produced, then why

    would you even spend so many thoughts on it, if your working as a designer?

    i understand that provoking thoughts is what your chasing after, but then call yourself an

    artist and do what artists have done for the better part of their existence in a much more

    prolific way.

    In the end, you are getting paid to make a product. It is your choices, your design.
    If it turns out bad, because you have worked for the wrong company, with wrong motives or

    completed your job without thinking enough about it, then sorry, it’s your fault, you

    shouldn’t have done it.

    Putting yourself onto a podest, telling the world with pictures that your ideology of not

    producing objects, but instead facing us with our stupid consuming self is the way to go, is

    morally worse than at least trying to better the situation!
    Lets face it, without producing something, you will never change the real world, where stuff

    is being produced, consumed and thrown away. We will still be using our plastic toothbrushes

    if nobody comes up with a more positive way of really producing them.

    So if you want to be discursive, i encourage you to write science fiction and visualize

    everything you don’t want the world to become in a truly aesthetic and artistic way. Lots of

    great visions are still hidden in the worlds sci-fi minds and we know how motivating great

    visions can be.

    But if you really want the world to change, go through the process of solving those questions

    your vision throws up in a meaningful way. Propose something original, create and show it

    to the world. Because in essence, it is about the process of thinking about the future and

    designing objects, that fit so perfectly and have such a genuine world of thoughts

    encompassing them (maybe derived from “discursive design” as you call it), that they will

    really make a difference in our everyday life.

    Sincerely,
    Tamas