Tag Archives: futures

Of Threatcasting

Until a Google alert came through my email this week, I have to admit, I had never heard the term threatcasting. I clicked-in to an article in Slate that gave me the overview, and when I discovered that threatcasting is a blood-relative to guerrilla futures, I was more than intrigued. First, let’s bring you up to speed on threatcasting and then I will remind my readers about this guerrilla business.

The Slate article was written by futurist Brian David Johnson, formerly of Intel and now in residence at Arizona State University, and Natalie Vanatta a U.S. Army Cyber officer with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics currently researching in a military think tank. These folks are in the loop, and kudos to ASU for being a leader in bringing thought leaders, creators and technologists together to look at the future. According to the article, threatcasting is “… a conceptual process used to envision and plan for risks 10 years in the future.” If you know what my research focus is, then you know we are already on the same page. The two writers work with “Arizona State University’s Threatcasting Lab, whose mission is to use threatcasting to envision futures that empower actions.” The lab creates future scenarios that bring together “… experts in social science, technology, economics, cultural history, and other fields.” Their future scenarios have inspired companies like CISCO, through the Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL), to create a two-day summit to look at countermeasures for threats to the Internet of Things. They also work with the “… U.S. Army Cyber Institute, a military think tank tasked to prepare for near-future challenges the Army will face in the digital domain.” The article continues:

“The threatcasting process might generate only negative visions if we stopped here. However, the group then use the science-fiction prototype to explore the factors and events that led to the threat. This helps them think more clearly how to disrupt, lessen, or recover from the potential threats. From this the group proposes short-term, actionable steps to implement today to nudge society away from potential threats.”

So, as I have already said, this is a very close cousin of my brand of design fiction. Where it differs is that it focuses on threats, the downsides and unintended consequences of many of the technologies that we take for granted. Of course, design fiction can do this as well, but design fiction has many flavors, and not all of them deal with future downsides.

Design fictions, however, are supposed to be provocations, and I am an advocate of the idea that tension creates the most successful provocations. We could paint utopian futures, a picture of what the world will be like should everything work out flawlessly, but that is not the essential ingredient of my brand of design fiction nor is it the real nature of things. However, my practice is not altogether dystopian either because our future will not likely be either
one or the other, but rather a combination that includes elements of both. I posit that our greatest possible impact will be to examine the errors that inevitably accompany progress and change. These don’t have to be apocalyptic. Sometimes they can be subtle and mundane. They creep up on us until one day we realize that we have changed.

As for guerrilla futures, this term comes from futurist and scholar, Stewart Candy. Here the idea is to insert the future
into the present “to expose publics to possibilities that they are unable or unwilling to give proper consideration. Whether or not they have asked for it.” All to raise awareness of the future, to discuss it and debate it in the present. My provocations are a bit more subtle and less nefarious than the threatcasting folks. Rather than terrorist attacks or hackers shutting down the power grid, I focus on the more nuanced possibilities of our techno-social future, things like ubiquitous surveillance, the loss of privacy, and our subtlely changing behaviors.

Nevertheless, I applaud this threatcasting business, and we need more of it, and there’s plenty of room for both of us.

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On utopia and dystopia. Part 2.

From now on we paint only pretty pictures. Get it?

A couple of blarticles (blog-like articles) caught my eye this week. Interestingly, the two blarticles reference the same work. There was a big brew-haha a couple of years ago about how dystopian science fiction and design fiction with dystopian themes were somehow bad for us and that people were getting sick of it. Based on the most recent lists of bestselling books and films, that no longer seems to be the case. Nevertheless, some science fiction writers like Cory Doctorow (a fine author and Hugo winner) think that possibly more utopian futures would be better at influencing public policy. As he wrote in Boing Boing earlier this month,

“Science fiction writers have a long history of intervening/meddling in policy, but historically this has been in the form of right-wing science fiction writers…”

Frankly, I have no idea what this has to do with politics as there must certainly be more left handed authors and filmmakers in Hollywood than their right-sided counterparts. He continues:

“But a new, progressive wing of design fiction practicioners [sic] are increasingly involved in policy questions…”

Doctorow’s article cites a long piece for Slate, by the New America Foundation’s Kevin Bankston. Bankston says,

“…a stellar selection of 64 bestselling sci-fi writers and visionary filmmakers, has tasked itself with imagining realistic, possible, positive futures that we might actually want to live in—and figuring out we can get from here to there.”

That’s great, because, as I said, I am all about making alternative futures legible for people to consider and contemplate. In the process, however, I don’t think we should give dystopia short shrift. The problem with utopias is that they tend to be prescriptive, in other words, ”This is a better future because I say so.”

The futures I conjure up are neither utopian nor dystopian, but I do try to surface real concerns so that people can decide for themselves, kind of like a democracy. History has proven that regardless of our utopian ideals we more often than not mess things up. I don’t want it to be progressive, liberal, conservative or right wing, and I don’t think it should be the objective of science fiction or entertainment to help shape these policies especially when there is an obvious political purpose. It’s one thing to make alternative futures legible, another to shove them at us.

As long as it’s fiction and entertaining utopias are great but let’s not kid ourselves. Utopia and to some extent dystopia are individual perspectives. Frankly, I don’t want someone telling me that one future is better for me than another. In fact, that almost borders on dystopia in my thinking.

I’m not sure whether Bruce Sterling was answering Cory Doctorow’s piece, but Sterling’s stance on the issue is sharper and more insightful. Sterling is acutely aware that today is the focus. We look at futures, and we realize there are steps we need to take today to make tomorrow better. I recommend his post. Here are a couple of choice clips:

“*The “better future” thing is jam-tomorrow and jam-yesterday talk, so it tends to become the enemy of jam today. You’re better off reading history, and realizing that public aspirations that do seem great, and that even meet with tremendous innovative success, can change the tenor of society and easily become curses a generation later. Not because they were ever bad ideas or bad things to aspire to or do, but because that’s the nature of historical causality. Tomorrow composts today.”

“*If you like doing incredible things, because you’re of a science fictional temperament, then you should frankly admit your fondness for the way-out and the wondrous, and not disingenuously pretend that it’s somehow bound to improve the lot of the mundanes.”

Prettier pictures are not going to save us. Most of the world needs a wake-up call, not another dream.

In my humble opinion.


How science fiction writers’ “design fiction” is playing a greater role in policy debates

Various sci-fi projects allegedly creating a better future

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Election lessons. Beware who you ignore.

It was election week here in America, but unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight months, you already know that. Not unlike the Brexit vote from earlier this year, a lot of people were genuinely surprised by the outcome. Perhaps most surprising to me is that the people who seem to be the most surprised are the people who claimed to know—for certain—that the outcome would be otherwise. Why do you suppose that is? There is a lot of finger-pointing and head-scratching going on but from what I’ve seen so far none of these so-called experts has a clue why they were wrong.

Most of them are blaming polls for their miscalculations. And it’s starting to look like their error came not in who they polled but who they thought irrelevant and ignored. Many in the media are in denial that their efforts to shape the election may have even fueled the fire for the underdog. What has become of American Journalism is shameful. Wikileaks proves that ninety percent of the media was kissing up to the left, with pre-approved interviews, stories and marching orders to “shape the narrative.” I don’t care who you were voting for, that kind of collusion is a disgrace for democracy. Call it Pravda. But I don’t want to turn this blog into a political commentary, but it was amusing to watch them all wearing the stupid hat on Wednesday morning. What I do want to talk about, however, is how we look at data to reach a conclusion.

In a morning-after article from the LinkedIn network, futurist Peter Diamandis posted the topic, “Here’s what election campaign marketing will look like in 2020.” It was less about the election and more about future tech with an occasional reference to the election and campaign processes. He has five predictions. First is, the news flash that “Social media will have continued to explode. [and that] The single most important factor influencing your voting decision is your social network.” Diamandis says that “162 million people log onto Facebook at least once a month.” I agree with the first part of his statement but what about the people the other 50% and those that don’t share their opinions on politics. A lot of pollsters are looking at the huge disparity in projections vs. actuals in the 2016 election. They are acknowledging that a lot of people simply weren’t forthcoming in pre-election polling. Those planning to vote Trump, for example, knew that Trump was a polarizing figure and they weren’t going to get into it with their friends on social media or even a stranger taking a poll. Then, I’m willing to bet that a lot of voters who put the election over the top are in the fifty percent that isn’t on social media. Just look at the demographics for social media.

Peter Diamandis is a brilliant guy, and I’m not here to pick on him. Many of his predictions are quite conceivable. Mostly he’s talking about an increase in data mining, and AI is getting better at learning from it, with a laser focus on the individual. If you add this together with programmable avatars, facial recognition improvements and the Internet of Things, the future means that we are all going to be tracked with increasing levels of detail. And though our face is probably not something we can keep secret, if it all creeps you out, remember that much of this is based on what we choose to share. Fortunately, it will take a little bit longer than 2020 for all of these new technologies to read our minds—so until then we still hold the cards. As long as you don’t share our most private thoughts on social media or with pollsters, you’ll keep them guessing.

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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.

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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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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Is The Lightstream Chronicles awash with gender stereotypes?

When we look at speculative futures, the tendency can be to focus on the technologies and futuristic designs. But technology and design send out ripples beyond their form and function and have an undeniable impact on culture and behavior.

Early on in my character design for The Lightstream Chronicles a colleague mentioned that she was offended by my depiction of women. I was a bit shell-shocked at the time so I didn’t delve into her rationale. In hindsight however, though I disagree, I can understand her point. You have to realize that, at that time, early in character development, Marie_D, Kristin’s domestic synth had a more developed chest and noticeable nipples—sans clothing. This characterization of Marie, actually caught quite a bit of flack. In my mind, however, my intent was anything but the sexualization of my female characters, rather it was motivated by the storyline, that visible, near-nakedness is something taken for granted in the 22nd century. Nevertheless, I reluctantly re-designed Marie to have a pronounced chest, yet without articulated breasts and minus the nipples. I must admit, I like this better for the domestic model.

My rationale for any imagery that may be read as over-sexualized is something I have written about before. Namely, that just as 100 years ago we would be shocked by the thong and bikini, we are equally taken aback at the thought that in another 100 or so years clothing may be a thing of the past. In my story, thin, vacuum sealed second-skins, wrap all the characters in a bio-aware cocoon and any protruding curves, bulges or contours are part of the package, so to speak. While it may cause some base titillation for the various sexes in that day and age, it is no more so than similarly provocative clothing works today. And with genetic tech that enables every human to have the body of their dreams, these contours are deliberate fashion statements. So it remains part of the story line.

As far as whether it is sexist or these are gender stereotypes. An online dictionary will quickly produce this definition:

attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.

discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women.”

Two characteristics seem to emerge. First there is “attitudes or behaviors”, and the second is “discrimination or devaluation…especially such discrimination directed against women.”

Here I can confidently say that none of the above apply. First, there is no discrimination based on sex or devaluation for that matter. Kristin, our major female character is clearly in charge. She is a strong, single mother who does not rely on males for validation, nor on or her body in any kind of overtly sexual role. It is arguable that Kristin is in fact more dominant that her male counter parts, (aside from Col. Chen’s gratuitous bullying by virtue of his powerful position). Futhermore, in The Lightstream Chronicles, both women and men are visualized in the same way.

This is more of a commentary on steadily changing social mores than on any kind of gender stereotyping.

I have often thought that the true state of affairs in 150 years might be so unrecognizable that readers would find it too provocative or unsettling. So if things continue to heat up in The Lightstream Chronicles, don’t be too surprised. At the same time consider that it could actually be much worse.

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Kickstarter graphic novel has a futurist angle.

Writing a science fiction graphic novel that is set 147 years from now takes a lot of speculation on what the future holds. Not only technology is up for grabs, but geopolitics, society, transportation, fashion, and entertainment. The list is endless. There is a prevailing view among many science fiction writers that writing anything that falls in the near future runs dangerously close to being obsolete before you are published. That is one of the reasons I chose a far future scenario. It does drift into the realm of futurism. Of course, that is not my profession. There are plenty of futurists out there; professionals that make a living at researching and prognosticating on what might happen. They rarely go this far into the future, however. It’s just too far away to know and so much can happen between then and now.

Nevertheless, I am considering this a work of design fiction with a little bit of critical design thrown in for good measure. Design fiction is an emerging field of study that combines the application of design and speculative futures to, “enhance our capacity to seek out and work with possibility… exchange speculative ideas, disrupt conventional mindsets with provocative visions of alternative futures, and affirm individual agency” (Resnick, 2011:iii).1

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, speculative design might be seen as an evolution of critical design. “Speculative design is a dreamlike exercise – manufacturing alternate worlds, ones which feel every bit as real as the ‘real world’ we inhabit day-to-day… It cannot predict the future, but it can shape the present”(Keating, 2011).2

At a basic level, design is a future-oriented pursuit—to create something that does not currently exist. Thus, as design expands to embrace more complex social issues and wicked problems, the migration toward, and application to the future sciences becomes more relevant. High atop these disciplines is the study of foresight. Foresight embodies critical thinking about long-term developments, to generate debate and participation toward shaping the future, especially toward public policy.1 In the practice of foresight and futures research, usually, “in the service of national strategic interests (Resnick, 2011:13), many have arrived at the conclusion that the changes imminent in the 21st Century are so broad and happening so fast, that current methodologies cannot cope.“ “… the emerging strategic conditions of the 21st Century require us for the first time in history to develop the capacity to engage consciously in the evolution of existing human cultures, including their most fundamental frames of reference” (Nelson, 2010:282).3

The graphic novel project and this paper are based on a collection of ideas from the aforementioned experiments into critical design, speculative design, design fiction, foresight, design research, and narrative among others. The project is, at a surface level, a science-fiction graphic novel. It depicts a future where technological, political, and cultural “evolutions” have not only transpired, but are commonplace. They have become a part of the everyday fabric of a future culture.

All of this underlies what, on the surface, looks like a sci-fi, crime thriller. But that makes it that much more interesting on many different levels. So, if this all sounds a bit too scholarly for you, forget it. Enjoy the story. Remember Chapter 1 is still free online and there is still time to get in line for the book or digital edition when it’s completed.

The police maintain order in DownTown, through cruisers and remote drones. The drones can scan your implanted chips (everyone has them) and quickly identify if you are authorized to be in this neck of the woods. More on The LIghtstream Chronicles website. http://thelightstreamchronicles.com


1.Resnick, R. (2011) Materialization of the speculative in foresight and design. Master of Design. OCAD-Ontario College of Art and Design.

2. http://pstevensonkeating.co.uk/a-critique-on-the-critical

3.Nelson, R. (2010) Extending foresight: The case for and nature of Foresight 2.0. Futures, 42 (4), p.282-294.

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