This is from 2012 | 7 minute read

Discursive Design Fiction

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 naive 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:

A holder, specifically for a lollypop

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.

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.

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.

Originally posted on Tue, 17 Apr 2012

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