Defining [my] design fiction.

 

It’s tough to define something that still so new that, in practice, there is no prescribed method and dozens of interpretations. I met some designers at a recent conference in Trento, Italy that insist they invented the term in 1995, but most authorities attribute the origin to Bruce Sterling in his 2005 book, Shaping Things. The book was not about design fiction per se. Sterling’s is fond of creating neologisms, and this was one of those (like the term ‘spime’) that appeared in that book. It caught on. Sometime later Sterling sought to clarify it. And his most quoted definition is, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” If you rattle that off to most people, they look at you glassy-eyed. Fortunately, in 2013, Sterling went into more detail.

“Deliberate use’ means that design fiction is something that people do with a purpose. ‘Diegetic’ is from film and theatre studies. A movie has a story, but it also has all the commentary, scene-setting, props, sets and gizmos to support that story. Design fiction doesn’t tell stories — instead, it designs prototypes that imply a changed world. Suspending disbelief’ means that design fiction has an ethics. Design fictions are fakes of a theatrical sort, but they’re not wicked frauds or hoaxes intended to rob or fool people. A design fiction is a creative act that puts the viewer into a different conceptual space — for a while. Then it lets him go. Design fiction has an audience, not victims. Finally, there’s the part about ‘change’. Awareness of change is what distinguishes design fictions from jokes about technology, such as over-complex Heath Robinson machines or Japanese chindogu (‘weird tool’) objects. Design fiction attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.” (Sterling, 2013)

The above definition is the one on which I base most of my research. I’ve written on this before, such as what distinguishes it from science fiction, but I bring this up today because I frequently run into things that are not design fiction but are labeled thus. There are three non-negotiables for me. We’re talking about change, a critical eye on change and suspending disbelief.

Change
Part of the intent of design fiction is to get you to think about change. Things are going to change. It implies a future. I suppose it doesn’t mean that the fiction itself has to take place in the future, however, since we can’t go back in time, the only kind of change we’re going to encounter is the future variety. So, if the intent is to make us think, that thinking should have some redeeming benefit on the present to make us better prepared for the future. Such as, “Wow. That future sucks. Let’s not let that happen.” Or, “Careful with that future scenario, it could easily go awry.” Like that.

A critical eye on change.
There are probably a lot of practitioners who would disagree with me on this point. The human race has a proclivity for messing things up. We develop things often in advance of actually thinking about what they might mean for society, or an economy, or our health, our environment, or our behavior. We design way too much stuff just because we can and because it might make us rich if we do. We need to think more before we act. It means we need to take some responsibility for what we design. Looking into the future with a critical eye on how things could go wrong or just on how wrong they might be without us noticing is a crucial element in my interpretation of intent.

Suspending disbelief
As Sterling says, the objective here is not to fool you but to get close enough to a realistic scenario that you accept that it could happen. If it’s off-the-wall, WTF, conceptual art, absent of any plausible existence, or sheer fantasy, it misses the point. I’m sure there’s a place for those and no doubt a purpose, but call it something else, but not design fiction. It’s the same reason that Star Wars is not design fiction. There’s design and there’s fiction but different intent.

I didn’t intend to have this turn into a rant, and this may all seem to you like splitting hairs, but often these subtle differences are important so that we know what were studying and why.

The nice thing about blogs is that if you have a different opinion, you can share.

 

Sterling, B., 2013. Design Fiction: “Patently Untrue” by Bruce Sterling [WWW Document]. WIRED. URL http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/10/play/patently-untrue (accessed 12.12.14).
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Privacy or paranoia?

 

If you’ve been a follower of this blog for a while, then you know that I am something of a privacy wonk. I’ve written about it before (about a dozen times, such as), and I’ve even built a research project (that you can enact yourself) around it. A couple of things transpired this week to remind me that privacy is tenuous. (It could also be all the back episodes of Person of Interest that I’ve been watching lately or David Staley’s post last April about the Future of Privacy.) First, I received an email from a friend this week alerting me to a little presumption that my software is spying on me. I’m old enough to remember when you purchased software on as a set of CDs (or even disks). You loaded in on your computer, and it seemed to last for years before you needed to upgrade. Let’s face it, most of us use only a small subset of the features in our favorite applications. I remember using Photoshop 5 for quite awhile before upgrading and the same with the rest of what is now called the Adobe Creative Suite. I still use the primary features of Photoshop 5, Illustrator 10 and InDesign (ver. whatever), 90% of the time. In my opinion, the add-ons to those apps have just slowed things down, and of course, the expense has skyrocketed. Gone are the days when you could upgrade your software every couple of years. Now you have to subscribe at a clip of about $300 a year for the Adobe Creative Suite. Apparently, the old business model was not profitable enough. But then came the Adobe Creative Cloud. (Sound of an angelic chorus.) Now it takes my laptop about 8 minutes to load into the cloud and boot up my software. Plus, it stores stuff. I don’t need it to store stuff for me. I have backup drives and archive software to do that for me.

Back to the privacy discussion. My friend’s email alerted me to this little tidbit hidden inside the Creative Cloud Account Manager.

Learn elsewhere, please.
Learn elsewhere, please.

Under the Security and Privacy tab, there are a couple of options. The first is Desktop App Usage. Here, you can turn this on or off. If it’s on, one of the things it tracks is,

“Adobe feature usage information, such as menu options or buttons selected.”

That means it tracks your keystrokes. Possibly this only occurs when you are using that particular app, but uh-uh, no thanks. Switch that off. Next up is a more pernicious option; it’s called, Machine Learning. Hmm. We all know what that is and I’ver written about that before, too. Just do a search. Here, Adobe says,

“Adobe uses machine learning technologies, such as content analysis and pattern recognition, to improve our products and services. If you prefer that Adobe not analyze your files to improve our products and services, you can opt-out of machine learning at any time.”

Hey, Adobe, if you want to know how to improve your products and services, how about you ask me, or better yet, pay me to consult. A deeper dive into ‘machine learning’ tells me more. Here are a couple of quotes:

“Adobe uses machine learning technologies… For example, features such as Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop and facial recognition in Lightroom could be refined using machine learning.”

“For example, we may use pattern recognition on your photographs to identify all images of dogs and auto-tag them for you. If you select one of those photographs and indicate that it does not include a dog, we use that information to get better at identifying images of dogs.”

Facial recognition? Nope. Help me find dog pictures? Thanks, but I think I can find them myself.

I know how this works. The more data that the machine can feed on the better it becomes at learning. I would just rather Adobe get their data by searching it out for it themselves. I’m sure they’ll be okay. (Afterall there’s a few million people who never look at their account settings.) Also, keep in mind, it’s their machine not mine.

The last item on my privacy rant just validated my paranoia. I ran across this picture of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg hamming it up for his FB page.

zuckerberg copy

 

In the background, is his personal laptop. Upon closer inspection, we see that Zuck has a piece of duct tape covering his laptop cam and his dual microphones on the side. He knows.

zuckcloseup

 

Go get a piece of tape.

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News from a speculative future.

I  thought I’d take a creative leap today with a bit of future fiction. Here is a short, speculative future news article based on a plausible trajectory of science, tech and social policy.

 
18 November 2018
The Senate passed a bill today that gives the green light to Omzin Corp. and the nation’s largest insurer, the federal government, to require digital monitoring of health care recipients. Omzin Corp. is the manufacturer of a microscopic additive that is slated to become part of all prescription drugs. When ingested, the additive reacts with the stomach acids to transmit a signal to the insurer verifying that patients have taken their medication. A spokesperson for the federal government’s Universal Enrollment Plan (UEP), said that the Omzin additive was approved by the FDA as completely safe and would be a significant benefit to patients who have difficulty keeping track of complicated lists of medications and prescription requirements. The patient then naturally eliminates the tiny additive. A new ACAapp allows health care recipients to track on their mobile phone which drugs they have taken and when. The information is also transmitted to the health care provider. Opponents of the bill state that the legislation is a violation of privacy and tantamount to forced medication of the population. “Some people can avoid drugs through improved diet and exercise, but this bill pre-empts patients who would like to pursue that option,” according to Hub Garner a representative from citizens group MedChoice. “Patients who opt-in to the program will pay less for their insurance than those who defy the order,” said Senate minority leader

Some definite possibilities here for future artifacts, i.e., design fictions. Remember, design fictions are provocations of possible futures for the purposes of discussion and debate. Plausible or outrageous? What do you think?

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