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What Sci-Fi Gets Wrong, Design Fiction Could Get Right

Waving our hands at the future, from 'Minority Report,' to tablets, to drones in our faces.

by Adam Rothstein
30 December 2015, 4:45pm

In 1998, Steven Spielberg convened a panel of experts in a Santa Monica hotel to convert the script of Minority Report from science fiction to “future reality.” The result was one of the most captivating (albeit mainstream), visualisations of a potential technological future in recent memory. The film is now something of a benchmark for measuring the evolution of certain technologies, in how close the appear like the futuristic creations made by special effects in the film.

But the process of putting technologists and creators of fiction together in the same room—or even merging the activities in one person’s job description—is hardly limited to big budget productions. Corporations, artists, designers, and more all take part in a process that is known by several names, but which is generally recognised now under the name of “design fiction.”

Design fiction is a process of merging fictional worlds with the creative design in this world, hybridising our notions of reality and fiction into particular objects, with a look to the future. In his seminal 2009 “Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction,” Julian Bleecker frames the combination as, “assemblages of various sorts, part story, part material, part idea-articulating prop, part functional software. The assembled design fictions are component parts for different kinds of near future worlds.”

Drone Aviary from Superflux on Vimeo.

Superflux is a design practice specialising in these sorts of assemblages. Their recent Drone Aviary project takes the current interest in drones and projects it forward: showing drones that could be used for advertising, traffic management, surveillance, and naturally, selfies. Using prototypes and well-produced videos, Superflux bridges the distance between current technological realities and future possibilities, imagining a future by acting it out with objects.

There is a sense in which design fiction can be viewed simply as prediction: an attempt to square fact with fiction. Designers strive to create a vision so good, the future moves to imitate the art. As Bleecker points out, “Minority Report interface” is now a watchword for computer interaction designers. The challenge for design fiction becomes whether or not one’s insight is good enough that one’s creativity can become reality. To deploy a less futuristic metaphor: everyone wants to back the winning horse.

One predicts the winner of a race by having the best method for judging the competitors. Or, in the case of technology, by understanding it well enough that you can see what will eventually take shape, and what will be thrown in the dustbin: the ray guns and jetpacks of the past. By seeing the starting line clear enough, one can envision the finish line.

Technology corporations, therefore, pride themselves in their own design fictions, attempting to present a case in which their technology takes center stage in the future. Apple created the concept video for their “Knowledge Navigator” tablet in 1987, which, while dated in aesthetic, successfully predicted the company’s role in the development of tablet computers decades later. More recently, Corning, the company that developed the screen glass that enabled Apple’s phones and tablets, produced their own video called A Day Made of Glass, showing a future wherein their tech becomes even more fundamental to daily life than it already is—notably, it isn’t too far off from Minority Report interfaces.

But perhaps the primary question for future technology is not whether it will work, but whether it will work in the way we expect. Will display walls be fantastic, or will they be annoying? Will they be iPhones, or Segways? The technology will be functionally identical, regardless of whether we like it. The horse will always be the same horse when it crosses the finish line. The biology of the horse doesn’t care whether it wins or loses.

Eadweard Muybridge’s famous image of a horse in motion. Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Center for Genomic Gastronomy created glowing sushi, using genetically-modified fish meant to be sold as pets. This sort of unanticipated effect of future technology takes a central role in non-corporate design-fiction, where the emphasis is not just predicting the future, but predicting diverse or bizarre futures.

Designing concepts of the future ultimately shapes the future itself, as Minority Report shows. Without anyone betting on the horse race, there would perhaps be no track, no jockeys, no tickets. The horse would be standing in a meadow, simply being a horse. Design fiction creates fantasies of the future that function to build up the notion of the future as a race worth winning. And nothing quite trumps the moment when the horse everyone wants to win actually does—whether underdog or Triple Crown favorite. When fact fulfills fantasy, we say “the future is here.”

But creativity is more than betting on futures, and mainstream science fiction films and corporate concept videos are only part of design fiction’s potential. What Superflux and the Center for Genomic Gastronomy clue us into is not the tech, but the aesthetics of the way the tech might look: understanding the the future as a fantasy, an imagined end goal. Apple’s Knowledge Navigator got the tech right, but the aesthetic all wrong. What aesthetic aspects of Corning’s A Day Made of Glass will look hopeless passé, two decades from now? The ability to shape our image of the future is a critical opportunity as great as shaping the future itself. Design fiction can change the race, and try to make the race one worth winning. As sci-fi author Samuel Delany noted in his review of the original 1977 Star Wars film: “When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupulously Caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to loom a little dull.”

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Tagged:
DRONES
Star Wars
Apple
Science Fiction
THE FUTURE
Minority Report
GMOs
jetpacks
screens
design fiction
Superflux
Center for Genomic Gastronomy
Corning
Samuel Delany