New technologies are everywhere. They are being developed in labs every day—if not every ten minutes. If you are searching for them, like me, then you are likely to run across hundreds of techy developments that are on the cusp of being something mainstream within the next 10 years. Then, there are those technologies that we never hear about but that are fairly well developed, except that, as a society we’re not ready for them. So they sit in a lab until other developments come to pass or the marketing department decides that there is a high enough percentage of the population that will use or even accept them.
There is a great scene in the 2002 movie Minority Report where John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks into a Gap store. Immediately upon entering, his irises are scanned and the resident hologram begins to make suggestions based upon his purchasing preferences. In the movie, Cruise has just had his eyes swapped out with someone else to disguise his identity. So the virtual sales person thinks he is Mr. Yakamoto.
That movie is 13 years old. Today, iris scan recognition is already widely in use and in case you missed it, retinal scanning is now obsolete. The United Arab Emirates uses it at border crossings, India has begun enrolling its 1.2 billion citizens by capturing individual iris data, and in at least a half dozen applications for security around the world. It’s only current drawback is that you have to be standing still and fairly close the scanner for an accurate read. 1
Fear not, however because for people moving about and not standing still there is facial recognition which is much less picky about the quality of the scan, or in this case, the image. Facial recognition algorithms have improved dramatically over the years now logging 16,384 reference points which are referenced against a database and, fairly quickly can identify a person with 80 -90% accuracy. Higher accuracy rates just take a bit longer. 2 Right now its in use by law enforcement in airports and high security areas, but also at retail locations to catch shoplifters. Now it gets interesting because, while we fine-tune the iris scan, the same facial recognition system that is used to identify ne’er do wells can also be used a la Minority Report to identify shoppers who are regular customers, or help them find the lingerie department. A quick cross-reference with their online shopping habits, Facebook page and their Google history can also tell them how much you are likely to spend, your favorite color, and the name of your best friend to remind you that their birthday is right around the corner.
Putting this in context with what we’ve seen in the last few weeks of The Lightstream Chronicles, the idea that Keiji-T, with access to someone’s memories can ascertain their guilt or innocence is a logical next step. Too far, you think? Brain implants are already in testing that can implant memories 3 and augment decisions. Commonplace in the year 2159, perhaps.
In this scene nobody seems too talkative about the case at hand. Perhaps they are just trying to process everything that has just transpired — but it is late —and Detective Guren is still stewing over the comment from Col. Chen back on page 58.
On a side note, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I redesigned the elevator that our characters are standing in front of. Finally, I opted for a sleek, silent and fast shuttle that could bound multiple stories in short order.
After completing multiple pages of prologue material — similar to the approach I took prior to Chapter 2 — I have begun work on Chapter 3. The rationale for the prologues is to present what I believe to be rich, and important, backstory. If you are a regular follower of the web comic/graphic novel, then the backstory and nuances of what is going on in society as well as history, help to immerse you a bit more in the characters and their lives. At times, it feels as though there is so much backstory that I wish I had written a conventional novel. But then I think we would have been hard pressed to consider this as a work of design fiction. It is, of course, the diegetic prototypes that are so woven into people’s lives that we can look at and contemplate their affect on the culture and the behaviors of the characters.
Chapter 2 will wrap up on page 84, in case you were wondering.
This week, the governor flashes a rosary and crucifix, and while our team may be trying to conceal their surprise, we can see that they are more than a bit shocked. If you haven’t read the backstory on the government’s stand on religion, you can find it here, early in chapter 1, and in the chapter 2 prologues. I’m going to let you sort that out for now.
Today I thought I would center the discussion on realism.
The future of The Lightstream Chronicles is built with “artifacts” that, by virtue of the narrative, become infused with meaning. At the same time, they are intended to provide a sense of realism and increase engagement, as well as foster discussion and debate. Because design permeates culture, and is an inextricable part of daily life. Design and technology quickly blend in, and the people living in, and with it, don’t particularly take notice of it.
There has been a document floating about that I came across while stalking the pages of Carnegie Mellon’s Design Fiction and Imaginary Futures blog, called the Critical Engineering Manifesto which appears to be co-written by a group from Berlin in 2011. The team, Julian Oliver, Gordan Savičić, and Danja Vasiliev, have put together a rather ominous truism of the power of engineering and design in our culture today and especially in the future.
If we assume that the critical engineer shares at least some definition, in principle, with critical design popularized by Dunne & Raby, then its purpose, is a critique on engineering and perhaps technology and their affect on culture. As Dunne & Raby help to define critical design, it “uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life.”
The Critical Engineering Working Group and their manifesto share a similar spirit. Number 5 of the 10-point manifesto reads:
“5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.”
As I have written many times our smart phone, is a prime example: a designed technology that brings with it new efficiencies, and at the same time, engenders new behaviors. It has undeniably engineered us as well.
Therein lies the role of the diegetic prototype for design fiction. iPads, smart phones, vibrating reminders, 160 character thoughts exchanged with total strangers are likely just the beginning. But, to fully absorb the impact of our creations that have begun to create on their own, we need to think. Somehow, our speculative design needs to break through and become real enough to provoke us to think about the future and become more engaged in it.
Realism, I believe plays a significant role in this breakthrough objective. Realism, however, can be achieved in many ways beyond the most obvious, material fabrication. Indeed, the realism that made 2001 A Space Odyssey, Minority Report, or even Her so memorable, was not real at all, it just seemed that way. Yes, these artifacts from the future — the devices and technologies made scientifically plausible and logically designed — were so believable that they blended in, but what made them seem most real was how commonplace they were to their users. It was the way the characters interacted and behaved with these devices.
The Lightstream Chronicles quite obviously stops short of material fabrication, and leans heavily on the realism that can be conveyed through CG. But though the digital forms of these artifacts have dimension and virtual physicality, the emphasis is on how they can go unnoticed. Just as with our present-day artifacts like smart phones and laptops, they blend into the scheme of everyday. They are ubiquitous in the culture, yet they serve to influence social interaction and individual behavior.
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.
Indeed, I believe that realism is key. It is important to examine what makes it real to us and ask how real it needs to be to actually provoke us to think and encourage us to engage in our future.
With so much aplomb (and promise) at the start, it seems appropriate now, after The Lightstream Chronicles,Kickstarter effort proved to be unsuccessful, to double-check the toe tag, pull back the white sheet, and put an analytic eye at what might have gone awry. When it comes to Kickstarter, I think there are potentially three categories where you either succeed or fail.
I would divide awareness into two types.
The first are those who were already aware of the graphic novel project.
Though I did not know it at the beginning, and none of the research that I conducted prior to the launch indicated that this was a critical factor — it was a critical factor. This group can probably be split into two parts as well; those who had tacit knowledge, and those who were genuine fans. The tacit knowledge group includes family and friends, but most of these people, while aware of what you are doing, don’t really understand it, or what would have compelled you to do such a strange thing to begin with. The tacit knowledge group also includes, what I would call, colleagues. This group understands what you are doing and may even have an appreciation for it, but (apparently) not to the level that would motivate them to act in support of it. I included fellow MFA candidates, professors, and associates from my speaking engagement earlier this year at the RMCCGN conference and even a few students. My real, true-blue friends came through with flying colors, but the more pertinent question, it appears, is how many of these were genuine fans. While there were some among the aware, that were completely impressed, full of excitement and anxious to read more, they were probably 2 percent of this total number.
The second category is those who were alerted to it at launch time. In this case, I drew a much wider circle than the 75 or 80 people who fell into the first category, but you can divide this group into two parts also. The first of these are the likes of past associates, acquaintances, and professional contacts. I bugged the heck out of these people. So, it’s not like I sat back and waited for them to embrace the project and respond. Some of this group were critical of the fact that they had not heard from me in “forever” and now three times in one month. Hey. They way I see it, is if you’re friends with a colleague from your past, then you’re glad to hear from them whenever they contact you, and you not sitting around keeping score.
There were also some, design fiction types in this group. For the masses, I did not play up the design fiction side of the graphic novel. Those in the scholarly community knew of it, my professors and some from the “aware” group, but with all that was already different about this graphic novel, I figured the design fiction side would just scare average readers off. For the elite few that know about design fiction and have read my blog, my paper or are aware that I’ve been published on the topic, I assumed that this was evidence of a legitimate proof-of-concept. Here, again, it looks like I misjudged. Perhaps chapter 1 was just insufficient to seat the design fiction idea for them. I admit it’s not obvious at first, but then, how many people look at Minority Report or 2001 as a work of design fiction. You have to be looking for it and I thought these people would. A mention from one of these guys would probably have helped. (Maybe I should have sent along a draft of my thesis).
The last group in the awareness category was the “blog” press which included high readership web sites that regularly feature new concept art, comic book and graphic novel projects and some graphic design sites as well. This was probably 30 in total. Prior to writing the release, I researched proper press release form and even spoke with a web-savvy public relations pro on how to improve my chances with the online press. Since the art of this book is its most distinguishing factor, it did not make sense to attach big files to these emails so I uploaded some hi-definition examples to a 3rd party server and supplied them with a link. From stats provided by the site, 9 of the 30 journalists that I contacted downloaded files. Then, over the course of the campaign, I changed the spin on the release two different times, and hit the same people again. Nothing happened with this, and why that is will probably remain a mystery. Since I am a speculating kind of guy, I’m guessing that my design credentials were not as intriguing as publishing credentials might have been to this group. If I had a video game or comic book already on the shelves, I think my project may have been seen as more interesting than merely its face value. It certainly helps when journalists have a name that people recognize. You don’t even need to be recognized in that field, as long as somebody recognizes you. If a rock star decides to draw a comic, it’s news, even if it sucks. I’m not moaning about that. It just the way it works.
I have no doubt that the quality of the art and the story is first rate. This comes from someone who is by all ready his own worst critic. Could it be improved? Always. This book, however, is completely unique and very experiential. The research into the Kickstarter campaign, printing, and custom flash drives, shipping, warehousing; all that stuff, was very thorough. The video, in all its homegrown wonder was compelling, too. I don’t think it was a quality issue.
This is somewhat related to awareness. Let’s face it; a graphic novel is already a niche genre. No surprise there. If you add the science fiction story, the subject matter of future tech and the viewing experience that requires you to have a basic appreciation for CG graphics, then you are looking at a target audience that has a relatively high geek quotient (like me). Add to that, high-definition graphics that reward you if you zoom-in to discover details and clues, then you’ll also need proficiency at making your way around PDF software, and a fluency on the keyboard and mouse. This sounds like a lot for the average reader, but more like a comic book fan with a “gamer” skill set. Could some of the aforementioned blogs have been the ticket to reaching them? Absolutely. But, in the final analysis, I did not reach this group.
Does that mean that only this narrowly defined target will appreciate the book? No, just that they are more likely to “get it.”
It seems, then that my mission should be to begin targeting this group through other means. Until, I am published, the journalists are not going to care. Taking a grass roots approach through a web comic may be the best approach. Then, when the entire story is completed, perhaps I will have a sufficient following of genuine fans that would be willing to be backers to see it come to print.
I’m thinking that way at this point. If you have comments, join in the post mortem. Cheers!
The rage, when it comes to design fiction, is to make a film. The examples of this abound, not only the best diegetic prototypes from Blade Runner, Minority Report and 2001, that really started us thinking about this stuff, but also the recent presentations by Microsoft, Corning or Sony. In fact, with each new sic-fi or super-hero blockbuster there is some element of design fiction that is woven into the narrative. Tony Stark’s high tech lab with it’s holographic, gesture interfaces, is really just a “one-up” of John Anderton’s pre-cog version. The heart implant, however, doesn’t qualify so much since it is rather removed from the trending or plausible science of today.
In my last post I listed two things that I believe are essential to qualify as design fiction. The first was that you have to make something, visualize it or prototype it. The second qualification is that you have to throw it into the background as a tool, and not fetishize it (to use Bleecker’s term). It’s much more about how the people use it and their interaction with it, than how incredibly cool it might look (which is OK, but it’s about the human drama first). If there is a third, then I think the design itself must be based on some thread of science or research that can be pulled out in such a way that, in theory, the thing could work.
Whether the authors, screenwriters, or production designers on these film did rigorous research before creating these visions, is not as important as whether the thought of plausibility was there, or whether it was pure fantasy, e.g.“OK, he will need little rockets in his boots so that he can fly.” Not that there’s anything wrong with little rockets in the boots, I think they’re cool, but they are not design fiction — in my book.
So what does that have to do with a graphic novel?
This brings us to the title of the post. Why does a graphic novel do this better than a movie. First of all, I would not presume to say that it does it better. It does, however provide some interesting advantages that a film does not. The idea of sequential art that links story pictures (panels) in sequence to move the action forward, shares some obvious similarities to film, but it pretty much stops there. The distinction most frequently cited is what we call the “gutter”, the space between the panels that requires the reader to “fill in”. Most film marches forward in linear fashion delineating in perfect detail, all that is contained in one scene. Unless we grab the remote step-frame our way through, the film is designed to flow over us. The graphic novel, on the other hand, can show you as you turn the page, what is about to happen, and unless you are way more disciplined than I, you are likely to glance at the last image on the page before you read all of the images leading up to it. Therefore, as a double-page “spread” lays there in front of you, past, present and future are all displayed at once. Film does not do this. Even with rewind and fast forward, you are locked into the moment. This nuance allows the reader to study the image in a way that a movie audience cannot.
There are some good reasons, I think why this is a particular advantage for design fiction. First, the designed thing or technological idea that is being presented may not be front and center to the story, but it can be studied and lingered upon, before proceeding onward. Second, if the artist puts enough detail into the thing or ethnography into the idea, you can examine the waltz of interaction with the design in the innocuous way it seductively seeps into the background. I believe the this can only be done effectively, if you are able to proceed at your own pace. Once again, I know that you can step your way through a film, but often it lacks both the resolution or the detail to satisfy a deep dive.
In the case of my graphic novel, each scene is created in CG, so everything must be built. The designer is drawn in, perhaps more deeply, to craft the object with sufficient detail that it can be studied. Therefore, not only the size and shape and ergonomics of said design, but the finer details of its materials and functions may also be required. All this adds to the realism, and realism adds a dimension to the visualization and prototyping that combine to allow that item or idea to seem perfectly at home within the scene. I have taken it one step beyond, of course, and made each panel High Def, so that you really can zoom-in and see more; an idea that has already come back to haunt me as I inspect these very large images. “How did that thing get in the shot?”
Let’s face it, I came to Ohio State to make a graphic novel. For me, it was the epitome of holistic design and a realization of “epic integration.” In the professional world, I was forever battling to make clients and decision-makers embrace the idea as it applies to brands and their stories — experiences. Over the years though, so much of your design sensibility becomes second nature, intuitive. What seems obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. Thankfully the faculty prodded this out of me and as a result there was the discovery of design fiction.
Through design fiction, idea-objects gain knowledge mass and a sense of credibility. But design fiction is more than just constructing a set of plausible constraints through which a design might exist. Bleecker states that drama is of great importance. “We can put the designed thing in a story and move it to the background as if it were mundane and quite ordinary — because it is, or would be. The attention is on the people and their dramatic tension, as it should be.” (Bleecker, 2009:37) Thus, design becomes that invisible collaborator with culture in making life seem as real in the future as it is real for us now.
In fact, science fiction has a long history of introducing new technologies and artifacts that go on to become real world devices. The gesture-based interface of Minority Report or the multi-storey videos of Blade Runner are only two examples.
Evolutionary geneticist and science lecturer David Kirby calls these props “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, 2010:1) “Film-makers and science consultants craft diegetic prototypes and enhance their realism by creating a full elaboration of the technological diegesis which includes any part of the fictional world concerning the technology. Through their actions they construct a filmic realism that implies self-consistency in both the real world and the story world.” (Kirby, 2010:46).
While design fiction can be used in filmmaking to create acceptance of a concept or idea as some kind of future product placement, that is not its greatest potential. “A particularly rich context, a good story that involves people and their social practices rather than fetishizing the object and its imagined possibilities — this is what design fiction aspires to.” (Bleecker, 2009:27).
Playing around with these concepts makes for a very rich exploration into a future design. Stay tuned for the story synopsis, characters and more – coming August 2011.
Bleecker, Julian. 2009. Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction. Online. http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com
Kirby, David. 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; 41–70, February 2010. http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journals