Category Archives: Design Fiction

It’s all happening too fast.

 

Since design fiction is my area of research and focus, I have covered the difference between it and science fiction in previous blogs. But the two are quite closely related. Let me start with science fiction. There are a plethora of definitions for SF. Here are two of my favorites.

The first is from Isaac Asimov:

“[Social] science fiction is that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings.” — Isaac Asimov, Science Fiction Writers of America Bulletin, 1951 1

The second is from Robert Heinlein:

“…realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the scientific method.” 2

I especially like the first because it emphasizes people at the heart of the storytelling. The second definition speaks to real-world knowledge, and understanding of the scientific method. Here, there is a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars is not science fiction. Even George Lucas admits this. In a conversation at the Sundance Film Festival last year he is quoted as saying, “Star Wars really isn’t a science-fiction film, it’s a fantasy film and a space opera.”3 While Star Wars involves space travel (which is technically science based), the story has no connection to the real world; it may as well be Lord of the Rings.

I bring up these distinctions because design fiction is a hybrid of science fiction, but there is a difference. Sterling defines design fiction as, “The deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” Though even Sterling agrees that his definition is “heavy-laden” the operative word in his definition is “deliberate.” In other words, a primary operand of design fiction is the designers intent. There is a purpose for design fiction and it is to provoke discussion about the future. While it may entertain, that is not it’s purpose. It needs to be a provocation. For me, the more provocative, the better. The idea that we would go quietly into whatever future unfolds based upon whatever corporate or scientific manifesto is most profitable or most manageable makes me crazy.

The urgency arises in the fact that the future is moving way to fast. In The Lightstream Chronicles, some of the developments that I reserved for 25, 50 or even further into the future are showing signs of life in the next two or three years. Next week I will introduce you to a couple of these technologies.

 

1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there
2. Heinlein, R., 1983. The SF book of lists. In: Jakubowski, M., Edwards, M. (Eds.), The SF Book of Lists. Berkley Books, New York, p. 257.
3. http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a32507/george-lucas-sundance-quotes/
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The end of code.

 

This week WIRED Magazine released their June issue announcing the end of code. That would mean that the ability to write code, as is so cherished in the job world right now, is on the way out. They attribute this tectonic shift to Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and the like. In the future (which is taking place now) we won’t have to write code to tell computers what to do, we will just have to teach them. I have been over this before through a number of previous writings. An example: Facebook uses a form of machine learning by collecting data from millions of pictures that are posted on the social network. When someone loads a group photo and identifies the people in the shot, Facebook’s AI remembers it by logging the prime coordinates on a human face and attributing them to that name (aka facial recognition). If the same coordinates show up again in another post, Facebook identifies it as you. People load the data (on a massive scale), and the machine learns. By naming the person or persons in the photo, you have taught the machine.

The WIRED article makes some interesting connections about the evolution of our thinking concerning the mind, about learning, and how we have taken a circular route in our reasoning. In essence, the mind was once considered a black box; there was no way to figure it out, but you could condition responses, a la Pavlov’s Dog. That logic changes with cognitive science which is the idea that the brain is more like a computer. The computing analogy caught on, and researchers began to see the whole idea of thought, memory, and thinking as stuff you could code, or hack, just like a computer. Indeed, it is this reasoning that has led to the notion that DNA is, in fact, codable, hence splicing through Crispr. If it’s all just code, we can make anything. That was the thinking. Now there is machine learning and neural networks. You still code, but only to set up the structure by which the “thing” learns, but after that, it’s on its own. The result is fractal and not always predictable. You can’t go back in and hack the way it is learning because it has started to generate a private math—and we can’t make sense of it. In other words, it is a black box. We have, in effect, stymied ourselves.

There is an upside. To train a computer you used to have to learn how to code. Now you just teach it by showing or giving it repetitive information, something anyone can do, though, at this point, some do it better than others.

Always the troubleshooter, I wonder what happens when we—mystified at a “conclusion” or decision arrived at by the machine—can’t figure out how to make it stop arriving at that conclusion. You can do the math.

Do we just turn it off?

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Adapt or plan? Where do we go from here?

I just returned from Nottingham, UK where I presented a paper for Cumulus 16, In This Place. The paper was entitled Design Fiction: A Countermeasure For Technology Surprise. An Undergraduate Proposal. My argument hinged on the idea that students needed to start thinking about our technosocial future. Design fiction is my area of research, but if you were inclined to do so, you could probably choose a variant methodology to provoke discussion and debate about the future of design, what designers do, and their responsibility as creators of culture. In January, I had the opportunity to take an initial pass at such a class. The experiment was a different twist on a collaborative studio where students from the three traditional design specialties worked together on a defined problem. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than the outcome. Some students embraced this while others pushed back. The push-back came from students fixated on building a portfolio of “things” or “spaces” or “visual communications“ so that they could impress prospective employers. I can’t blame them for that. As educators, we have hammered the old paradigm of getting a job at Apple or Google, or (fill in the blank) as the ultimate goal of undergraduate education. But the paradigm is changing and the model of a designer as the maker of “stuff” is wearing thin.

A great little polemic from Cameron Tonkinwise recently appeared that helped to articulate this issue. He points the finger at interaction design scholars and asks why they are not writing about or critiquing “the current developments in the world of tech.” He wonders whether anyone is paying attention. As designers and computer scientists we are feeding a pipeline of more apps with minimal viability, with seemingly no regard for the consequences on social systems, and (one of my personal favorites) the behaviors we engender through our designs.

I tell my students that it is important to think about the future. The usual response is, “We do!” When I drill deeper, I find that their thoughts revolve around getting a job, making a living, finding a home, and a partner. They rarely include global warming, economic upheavals, feeding the world, natural disasters, etc. Why? These issues they view as beyond their control. We do not choose these things; they happen to us. Nevertheless, these are precisely the predicaments that need designers. I would argue these concerns are far more important than another app to count my calories or select the location for my next sandwich.

There is a host of others like Tonkinwise that see that design needs to refocus, but often it seems like there are are a greater number that blindly plod forward unaware of the futures they are creating. I’m not talking about refocusing designers to be better at business or programming languages; I’m talking about making designers more responsible for what they design. And like Tonkinwise, I agree that it needs to start with design educators.

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The nature of the unpredictable.

 

Following up on last week’s post, I confessed some concern about technologies that progress too quickly and combine unpredictably.

Stewart Brand introduced the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”1 Thirty-two years later, he wrote that new technologies such as computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology are self-accelerating, that they differ from older, “stable, predictable and reliable,” technologies such as television and the automobile. Brand states that new technologies “…create conditions that are unstable, unpredictable and unreliable…. We can understand natural biology, subtle as it is because it holds still. But how will we ever be able to understand quantum computing or nanotechnology if its subtlety keeps accelerating away from us?”2. If we combine Brand’s concern with Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the current supporting evidence exponentially, as the evidence supports, will it be as Brand suggests unpredictable?

Last week I discussed an article from WIRED Magazine on the VR/MR company Magic Leap. The author writes,

“Even if you’ve never tried virtual reality, you probably possess a vivid expectation of what it will be like. It’s the Matrix, a reality of such convincing verisimilitude that you can’t tell if it’s fake. It will be the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s rollicking 1992 novel, Snow Crash, an urban reality so enticing that some people never leave it.”

And it will be. It is, as I said last week, entirely logical to expect it.

We race toward these technologies with visions of mind-blowing experiences or life-changing cures, and usually, we imagine only the upside. We all too often forget the human factor. Let’s look at some other inevitable technological developments.
• Affordable DNA testing will tell you your risk of inheriting a disease or debilitating condition.
• You can ingest a pill that tells your doctor, or you in case you forgot, that you took your medicine.
• Soon we will have life-like robotic companions.
• Virtual reality is affordable, amazingly real and completely user-friendly.

These are simple scenarios because they will likely have aspects that make them even more impressive, more accessible and more profoundly useful. And like most technological developments, they will also become mundane and expected. But along with them come the possibility of a whole host of unintended consequences. Here are a few.
• The government’s universal healthcare requires that citizens have a DNA test before you qualify.
• It monitors whether you’ve taken your medication and issues a fine if you don’t, even if you don’t want your medicine.
• A robotic, life-like companion can provide support and encouragement, but it could also be your outlet for violent behavior or abuse.
• The virtual world is so captivating and pleasurable that you don’t want to leave, or it gets to the point where it is addicting.

It seems as though whenever we involve human nature, we set ourselves up for unintended consequences. Perhaps it is not the nature of technology to be unpredictable; it is us.

1. Brand, Stewart. “WE ARE AS GODS.” The Whole Earth Catalog, September 1968, 1-58. Accessed May 04, 2015. http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/1010/article/195/we.are.as.gods.
2. Brand, Stewart. “Is Technology Moving Too Fast? Self-Accelerating Technologies-Computers That Make Faster Computers, For Example – May Have a Destabilizing Effect on .Society.” TIME, 2000
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Design fiction. I want to believe.

 

I have blogged in the past about logical succession. When it comes to creating realistic design fiction narrative, there needs to be a sense of believability. Coates1 calls this “plausible reasoning.”, “[…]putting together what you know to create a path leading to one or several new states or conditions, at a distance in time.” In other words, for the audience to suspend their disbelief, there has to be a basic understanding of how we got here. If you depict something that is too fantastic, your audience won’t buy it, especially if you are trying to say that, “This could happen.”

“When design fictions are conceivable and realistically executed they carry a greater potential for making an impact and focusing discussion and debate around these future scenarios.”2

In my design futures collaborative studio, I ask students to do a rigorous investigation of future technologies, the ones that are on the bleeding edge. Then I want them to ask, “What if?” It is easier said than done. Particularly because of technological convergence, the way technologies merge with other technologies to form heretofore unimagined opportunities.

There was an article this week in Wired Magazine concerning a company called Magic Leap. They are in the MR business, mixed reality as opposed to virtual reality. With MR, the virtual imagery happens within the space you’re in—in front of your eyes—rather than in an entirely virtual space. The demo from Wired’s site is pretty convincing. The future of MR and VR, for me, are easy to predict. Will it get more realistic? Yes. Will it get cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous? Yes. At this point, a prediction like this is entirely logical. Twenty-five years ago it would not have been as easy to imagine.

As the Wired article states,

“[…]the arrival of mass-market VR wasn’t imminent.[…]Twenty-five years later a most unlikely savior emerged—the smartphone! Its runaway global success drove the quality of tiny hi-res screens way up and their cost way down. Gyroscopes and motion sensors embedded in phones could be borrowed by VR displays to track head, hand, and body positions for pennies. And the processing power of a modern phone’s chip was equal to an old supercomputer, streaming movies on the tiny screen with ease.”

To have predicted that VR would be where it is today with billions of dollars pouring into fledgling technologies and realistic, and utterly convincing demonstrations would have been illogical. It would have been like throwing a magnet into a bucket of nails, rolling it around and guessing which nails would end up coming out attached.

What is my point? I think it is important to remind ourselves that things will move blindingly fast particularly when companies like Google and Facebook are throwing money at them. Then, the advancement of one only adds to the possibilities of the next iteration possibly in ways that no one can predict. As VR or MR merges with biotech or artificial reality, or just about anything else you can imagine, the possibilities are endless.

Unpredictable technology makes me uncomfortable. Next week I’ll tell you why.

 

  1. Coates, J.F., 2010. The future of foresight—A US perspective. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 77, 1428–1437.
  2. E. Scott Denison. “Timed-release Design Fiction: A Digital Online Methodology to Provoke Reflection on our Socio- Technological Future.”  Edited by Michal Derda Nowakowski. ISBN: 978-1-84888-427-4 Interdisciplinary.net.
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Nine years from now.

 

Today I’m on my soapbox, again, as an advocate of design thinking, of which design fiction is part of the toolbox.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center published a report on Digital Life in 2025. Therein, “The report covers experts’ views about advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and their impact on jobs and employment.” Their nutshell conclusion was that:

“Experts envision automation and intelligent digital agents permeating vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, (9 years from now), but they are divided on whether these advances will displace more jobs than they create.”

On the upside, some of the “experts” believe that we will, as the brilliant humans that we are, invent new kinds of uniquely human work that we can’t replace with AI—a return to an artisanal society with more time for leisure and our loved ones. Some think we will be freed from the tedium of work and find ways to grow in some other “socially beneficial” pastime. Perhaps we will just be chillin’ with our robo-buddy.

On the downside, there are those who believe that not only blue-collar, robotic, jobs will vanish, but also white-collar, thinking jobs, and that will leave a lot of people out of work since there are only so many jobs as clerks at McDonald’s or greeters at Wal-Mart. They think that some of these are the fault of education for not better preparing us for the future.

A few weeks ago I blogged about people who are thinking about addressing these concerns with something called Universal Basic Income (UBI), a $12,000 gift to everyone in the world since everyone will be out of work. I’m guessing (though it wasn’t explicitly stated) that this money would come from all the corporations that are raking in the bucks by employing the AI’s, the robots and the digital agents, but who don’t have anyone on the payroll anymore. The advocates of this idea did not address whether the executives at these companies, presumably still employed, will make more than $12,000, nor whether the advocates themselves were on the 12K list. I guess not. They also did not specify who would buy the services that these corporations were offering if we are all out of work. But I don’t want to repeat that rant here.

I’m not as optimistic about the unique capabilities of humankind to find new, uniquely human jobs in some new, utopian artisanal society. Music, art, and blogs are already being written by AI, by the way. I do agree, however, that we are not educating our future decision-makers to adjust adequately to whatever comes along. The process of innovative design thinking is a huge hedge against technology surprise, but few schools have ever entertained the notion and some have never even heard of it. In some cases, it has been adopted, but as a bastardized hybrid to serve business-as-usual competitive one-upmanship.

I do believe that design, in its newest and most innovative realizations, is the place for these anticipatory discussions and future. What we need is thinking that encompasses a vast array of cross-disciplinary input, including philosophy and religion, because these issues are more than black and white, they are ethically and morally charged, and they are inseparable from our culture—the scaffolding that we as a society use to answer our most existential questions. There is a lot of work to do to survive ourselves.

 

 

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“It will happen this way:”

 

One of my favorite scenes in cinema comes from Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, loosely based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor. The film stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow. The movie site IMDb gives this tidy synopsis:

“A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead, and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust.”

The answer is probably: nobody. If you have not seen the movie, you should check it out. The premise of an all-knowing, all-powerful, intelligence agency that plays fast-and-loose with the constitution and human life is all too real even 41 years later. There is a scene near the end of the movie where the hitman Joubert (played by Sydow) tells CIA researcher Joe Turner (Redford) that he may never be safe again. The script for this film is outstanding. The character Joubert knows his profession and the people that hire him so well that he can predict the future with high confidence.

 

In many ways, that is what futurists and those in foresight studies attempt to do. Know the people, the behaviors, and the forces in play, so well, that they can make similar predictions. My variation on this, which I have written about previously, is called logical succession. I have used this technique extensively in crafting the story and events of my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles.

In previous blogs, I have explained why my characters have perfect bodies and why they show them off in shrink-wrapped bodysuits that leave little to the imagination. As technology moves forward, it changes us. Selfies have been around since the invention of the camera. Before that, it was called a self-portrait. But the proliferation of the selfie, the nude selfie, and sexting, for example, are by-products of the mobile phone and social media—both are offspring of technology.

With genetic editing already within reach via CrisprCas9, the notion of a body free of disease is no longer a pipe dream. Promising research into manipulating gut hormones could mean the end of obesity. According to livescience.com:

“The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things.”

No wonder medical technology is working hard to find ways to hack into the body’s endocrine system. When these technologies become available, signing up for the perfect body will undoubtedly follow. Will these technologies also change behaviors accordingly?

Psychologists point to a combination of peer pressure, the need for approval, as well as narcissism to be behind the increase in selfie-culture but will that only increase when society has nothing to hide? Will this increase the competition to show off every enhanced detail of the human body? In my future fiction, The Lightstream Chronicles, the answer is yes.

Already there are signs that the “look at me” culture is pervasive in society. Selfies, Sexting, a proliferation of personal photo and social media apps and, of course, the ubiquitous tattoo (the number of American’s with at least one tattoo is now at 45 million) are just a few of these indications.

If this scenario plays out, what new ways will we find to stand out from the crowd? I’ll continue this next week.

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Writing a story that seemingly goes on forever. LSC update.

 

This week I wrapped up the rendering and text for the last episodes of Season 4 of The Lightstream Chronicles. Going back to the original publication calendar that I started in 2012, Chapter 4 was supposed to be 30 some pages. Over the course of production, the page count grew to more than fifty. I think that fifty episodes (pages) are a bit too many for a chapter since it takes almost a year for readers to get through a “season.” If we look at the weekly episodes in a typical TV drama, there are usually less than twenty which is far fewer than even ten years ago. So in retrospect, fifty episodes could have been spread across 2 seasons. The time that it takes to create a page, even from a pre-designed script is one of the challenges in writing and illustrating a lengthy graphic novel. Since the story began, I have had a lot of time to think about my characters, their behavior and my on futuristic prognostications. While this can be good, giving me extra time to refine, clarify or embellish the story, it can also be something of a curse as I look back and wish I had not committed a phrase or image to posterity. Perhaps they call that writer’s remorse. This conundrum also keeps things exciting as I have introduced probably a dozen new characters, scenes, and extensive backstory to the storytelling. Some people might warn that this is a recipe for disaster, but I think that the upcoming changes make the story better, more suspenseful, and engaging.

Since I have added a considerable number of pages and scenes to the beginning of Season 5, the episode count is climbing. It looks as though I going to have to add a Season 7, and possibly a Season 8 before the story finally wraps up.

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Privacy vs. Security. The public forum begins.

Some people think I tend toward paranoia. If a lack of blind trust in the human condition means I am paranoid, then I guess I am. This topic comes up today as we see the average citizen joining the discussion about encryption, security, privacy and the smartphone. By now you have ( unless you are living under a rock) heard that Apple has been ordered to help unlock the iPhone that belonged to the Santa Barbara terrorist Syed Farook. Apple has refused. You can get the details in the previous links, but mainly Apple doesn’t even know how to get into this iPhone. They designed it that way. It keeps them from getting into your data and keeps everyone else out as well. Apple would have to write a new operating system for this particular phone, sign it (to prove that it came from Apple and not some hack) and then upload it to the phone so that the FBI could get in. In essence, it is a master key, because it’s constituent parts become part of a knowledge-base that can render your phone insecure. If you think the FBI would never use this key or the program written to make it work on any other phone, well then, I think you can safely say you are not paranoid. Programmers call this a “back door.” If you believe that only the FBI will discover, find, or hack into the back door (for good reason, of course), then you can safely say you are not paranoid. Furthermore, there is no reasonable protection for this new “backdoor” into our phones. Once there is another way, someone will find it.

What good is encryption if it isn’t encryption?

I don’t think this is an argument for whether the FBI is justified in wanting to know what is on that phone. It’s is about how they get it, and whether or not they will be able to get it from anyone else (for good reason, of course) the next time they are curious.

You can see how this plays out in my design fiction scenario: Ubiquitous Surveillance. Check it out.

 

 

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Logical succession, the final installment.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been discussing the idea posited by Ray Kurzweil, that we will have linked our neocortex to the Cloud by 2030. That’s less than 15 years, so I have been asking how that could come to pass with so many technological obstacles in the way. When you make a prediction of that sort, I believe you need a bit more than faith in the exponential curve of “accelerating returns.”

This week I’m not going to take issue with an enormous leap forward in the nanobot technology to accomplish such a feat. Nor am I going to question the vastly complicated tasks of connecting to the neocortex and extracting anything coherent, but also assembling memories, and consciousness and in turn, beaming it to the Cloud. Instead, I’m going to pose the question of, “Why we would want to do this in the first place?”

According to Kurzweil, in a talk last year at Singularity University,

“We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment…” 1

Another brilliant futurist, and friend of Ray, Peter Diamandis includes these additional benefits:

• Brain to Brain Communication – aka Telepathy
• Instant Knowledge – download anything, complex math, how to fly a plane, or speak another language
• Access More Powerful Computing – through the Cloud
• Tap Into Any Virtual World – no visor, no controls. Your neocortex thinks you are there.
• And more, including and extended immune system, expandable and searchable memories, and “higher-order existence.”2

As Kurzweil explains,

“So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world — it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”1

The future sounds quite remarkable. My issue lies with Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” or what I call humankind’s uncanny ability to foul things up. Diamandis’ list could easily spin this way:

  • Brain-To-Brain hacking – reading others thoughts
  • Instant Knowledge – to deceive, to steal, to subvert, or hijack.
  • Access to More Powerful Computing – to gain the advantage or any of the previous list.
  • Tap Into Any Virtual World – experience the criminal, the evil, the debauched and not go to jail for it.

You get the idea. Diamandis concludes, “If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.”

Nevertheless, we race forward. We discovered this week that “A British researcher has received permission to use a powerful new genome-editing technique on human embryos, even though researchers throughout the world are observing a voluntary moratorium on making changes to DNA that could be passed down to subsequent generations.”3 That would be CrisprCas9.

It was way back in 1968 that Stewart Brand introduced The Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Which lab is working on that?

 

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2
2. http://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/crispr-gene-editing-human-embryos-kathy-niakan-britain.html?_r=0
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