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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