Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

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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The Robo-Apocalypse. Part 2.


Last week I talked about how the South Koreans have developed a 50 caliber toting, nearly autonomous weapon system and have sold a few dozen around the world. This week I feel obligated to finish up on my promise of the drone with a pistol. I discovered this from a WIRED article. It was a little tongue-in-cheek piece that analyzed a YouTube video and concluded that pistol-packing drone is probably real. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe that this is a really bad idea, including the author of the piece. Nevertheless, if we were to make a list of unintended consequences of DIY drone technology, (just some simple brainstorming) the list, after a few minutes, would be a long one.

This week FastCo reported that  NASA held a little get-together with about 1,000 invited guests from the drone industry to talk about a plan to manage the traffic when, as the agency believes, “every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future”. NASA’s plan takes things slowly. Still the agency predicts that we will be able to get our packages from Amazon and borrow a cup of sugar from Aunt Gladys down the street, even in populated areas, by 2019.

Someone taking action is good news as we work to fix another poorly conceived technology that quickly went rogue. Unfortunately, it does nothing about the guy who wants to shoot down the Amazon drone for sport (or anyone/anything else for that matter).

On the topic of bad ideas, this week The Future Of Life Institute, a research organization out of Boston issued an open letter warning the world that autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence (AI) were imminent. The reasonable concern here is that a computer will do the kill-or-not-kill, bomb-or-not-bomb thinking, without the human fail-safe. Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.” [Emphasis mine.]

The letter is short. You should read it. For once we have and example of those smart people I alluded to last week, the ones with compassion and vision. For virtually every “promising” new technology—from the seemingly good to the undeniably dangerous) we need people who can foresee the unintended consequences of one-sided promises. Designers, scientists, and engineers are prime candidates to look into the future and wave these red flags. Then the rest of the world needs to pay attention.

Once again, however, the technology is here and whether it is legal or illegal, banned or not banned the cat is out of the bag. It is kind of like a nuclear explosion. Some things you just can’t take back.

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The robo-apocalypse. Part 1.

Talk of robot takeovers is all the rage right now.

I’m good with this because the evidence is out there that robots will continue to get smarter and smarter but the human condition, being what it is, we will continue to do stupid s**t. Here are some examples from the news this week.

1. The BBC reported this week that South Korea has deployed something called The Super aEgis II, a 50-caliber robotic machine gun that knows who is an enemy and who isn’t. At least that’s the plan. The company that built and sells the Super aEgis is DoDAAM. Maybe that is short for do damage. The BBC astutely notes,

“Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics, that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’, looks like it will soon be broken.”

Asimov was more than a great science-fiction writer, he was a Class A futurist. He clearly saw the potential for us to create robots that were smarter and more powerful than we are. He figured there should be some rules. Asimov used the kind of foresight that responsible scientists, technologists and designers should be using for everything we create. As the article continues, Simon Parkin of the BBC quotes Yangchan Song, DoDAAM’s managing director of strategy planning.

“Automated weapons will be the future. We were right. The evolution has been quick. We’ve already moved from remote control combat devices, to what we are approaching now: smart devices that are able to make their own decisions.”

Or in the words of songwriter Donald Fagen,

“A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision…1

Relax. The world is full of these fellows. Right now the weapon/robot is linked to a human who gives the OK to fire, and all customers who purchased the 30 units thus far have opted for the human/robot interface. But the company admits,

“If someone came to us wanting a turret that did not have the current safeguards we would, of course, advise them otherwise, and highlight the potential issues,” says Park. “But they will ultimately decide what they want. And we develop to customer specification.”

A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.
A 50 caliber round. Heavy damage.

They are currently working on the technology that will help their machine make the right decision on its own., but the article cites several academics and researchers who see red flags waving. Most concur that teaching a robot right from wrong is no easy task. Compound the complexity because the fellows who are doing the programming don’t always agree on these issues.

Last week I wrote about Google’s self-driving car. Of course, this robot has to make tough decisions too. It may one day have to decide whether to hit the suddenly appearing baby carriage, the kid on the bike, or just crash the vehicle. In fact, Parkin’s article brings Google into the picture as well, quoting Colin Allen,

“Google admits that one of the hardest problems for their programming is how an automated car should behave at a four-way stop sign…”

Humans don’t do such a good job at that either. And there is my problem with all of this. If the humans who are programming these machines are still wrestling with what is ethically right or wrong, can a robot be expected to do better. Some think so. Over at DoDAMM,

“Ultimately, we would probably like a machine with a very sound basis to be able to learn for itself, and maybe even exceed our abilities to reason morally.”

Based on what?

Next week: Drones with pistols.


1. Donald Fagen, IGY From the Night Fly album. 1982
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Is all science fiction automatically design fiction?

It is probably helpful to reference evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby who coined the term “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010). It is Kirby’s assertion that scientists often use cinema to further their projects and interests. “The presentation of science within the cinematic framework can convince audiences of the validity of ideas and create public excitement about nascent technologies”(66). Kirby’s analysis included classic, technology-laden films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report, among others. In his view, scientists and engineers go to elaborate lengths to make these technologies as realistic as possible. “The most successful cinematic technologies are taken for granted by the characters in the diegesis, and thus, communicate to the audience that these are not extraordinary but rather everyday technologies. These technologies not only appear normal while on the screen, but they also fit seamlessly into the entire diegetic world”(50).

I think there are two specific variables to the answer. First, there is the perspective and intent of the creator, and second, the audience. The SF creator could be the author (in the case of literature) and the director (in the case of film). If we look at the archetypal stories of Philip K. Dick or Arthur C. Clarke, a sense of realism and plausible science make the speculative future seem more real, and believable. When Stanley Kubrick took 2001 to the screen, “Kubrick wanted absolute realism: he wanted the hardware on screen to look as though it really worked” (Bizony, 1994:81).

If you accept science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s (2012a) definition of design fiction as “…the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” then deliberate intent is specific and we would have to examine our science fiction on a case-by-case basis.

When the designer becomes science fiction author the intent of design fiction is perhaps most obvious. Bleecker, Candy, Dunagan, Dunne & Raby all fall into this category, and I submit, so does my graphic novel. Perhaps a science fiction writer (using a heavy dose of creative license) might simply decide what the world will be like 147 years from now. But in the context of this project, the designer is compelled to follow a course of due diligence before speculating on the design, the culture and the infinite number of possibilities that could affect it. Many believe that technology will have the greatest affect on design by enabling designers to imagine things heretofore unimaginable. That technology and the subsequent advancements in biotech, artificial intelligence, medicine, energy and transportation will send ripples into politics, religion and humanity.

Though there are perhaps as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction authors, most would agree that, in the final analysis, it is about people.

“[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 use of diegetic prototypes can suspend disbelief about the future scenarios, and through an examination of culture and context, individuals can contemplate present-day decisions that will affect the future on an individual basis.This brings us to the remaining variable: the audience. If design fictions can engage the average person-on-the-street to dialog about the imminent future, then perhaps individuals will become more aware of their ability to engage in discussion and thereby help to direct the future rather than being directed by it.

So, whether it is design fiction, science fiction or both, it is important that we not lose sight of its ability to make us think, and perhaps accept our responsibility to do so.


Bizony, P. (1994) 2001 Filming the Future. London: Arum Press Limited, p.81.


Kirby, D. (2010) The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating

Real-world Technological Development. Social Studies of Science, 40 (1), p.41-70.


Sterling, B. (2012a) Sci-Fi Writer Bruce Sterling Explains the Intriguing New Concept of Design

Fiction. Interviewed by Torie Bosch [radio] Tempe, AZ, March 2, 2012.


1. http://io9.com/5622186/how-many-defintions-of-science-fiction-are-there


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