Tag Archives: narrative

The Naked Future. Are you ready?

Ed. note: Due to problems with my ISP, The Lightstream Chronicles was posted late this morning. Perhaps the subject of a future blog rant, after hours of something loosely called “tech support”,  I had to drive to the local Starbucks to upload the pages. Long live Starbucks!

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If you zip back to my blog about page 53 you’ll see a somewhat lengthy but not all that coherent post on the interaction between humans and synthetics. That post centers more on how synths, once they became realistically human, were quickly exploited as slaves, both menial and sexual. Though not all of the future society in The Lightstream Chronicles was to blame as soon as there was a device that could do your bidding, there were those who abused the technology. Some will see this is pure dystopic fiction but it is difficult to argue that the past is littered with the precedent for technological misuse. And as we move toward a more ethically relativistic society, misuse will have a narrower and narrower definition. Therefore, even in a society that should be more enlightened, it is completely plausible that we could treat our synthetic co-workers with less respect than real humans. The irony in this future speculation is that the technological enhancement of humans and their symbiotic fusion with the technosphere, along with the ever more emotional and empathic capabilities of synthetics, the line between real humanity is almost nonexistent.

The Naked Future

Thinking about the future is more than a geeky, sci-fi pastime. I believe it is our responsibility to engage with the political, scientific, social and ethical decision-making happening around us. Because, whether we know it or not, those decisions will make a huge impact on the shape of the world we live in tomorrow. It’s just one of the reasons that I am a card-carrying member of The World Future Society. As a member, I regularly check in with wfs.org to see read the latest prognostications on the future. If you look closely at the predictions or forecasts of any futurist, it’s possible to see where they are coming from as well. In other words, everyone comes at his or her vision of the future with an opinion: Is this aspect of the future all positive or is there a cautionary tone?

This is, of course, at the core of my design fiction research at Ohio State. So, as I was meandering around the wfs.org site I stumbled upon an article by Patrick Tucker, an editor at The Futurist magazine, a publication of WFS. This happened on March 5th. Coincidentally, I saw that Patrick’s book, The Naked Future: What Happens In A World That Anticipates Your Every Move? was about to be released on March 6th. Since this topic is dead center on my radar, I clicked over to iTunes to see if it was available as an iBook, and sure enough, it was. Nevertheless, I couldn’t wait so Googled up a YouTube video moderated by David Wood for the London Futurists and featuring the aforementioned Tucker along with futurists David Orban, Evan Selinger, Gray Scott, and Rachel Armstrong. It was a lively (though, at times, technically challenged) Skype meet-up that touched on some timely topics.

I hope to have a full review on Tucker’s book in a future blog but I think that the meet-up touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas that I’m sure are in-store for the reader. Naked is a perfect term for this idea of our lives being transparent and the book (though I am only partially through it) documents the shrinking evolution of big data from unwieldy complexity to smartphone accessibility — as a fearsome tool of the powerful over the weak to what is becoming an open resource. Therein is perhaps the most interesting part. We may as well accept that fact that this is a reality, and as Tucker explains (11) the big data era has already morphed into telemetry, “Telemetry is the collection and transfer of data in real time, as tough sensed.” The fact is we leave tracks. Extrapolating this is easy, walk the same path, explore some dark corner, innocently tweet and you are adding to your data. After a while, as much as you may wish to disbelieve, it is easy to predict where you will go next. As computing becomes more ubiquitous, all of our surfaces become live, as everything we touch leaves some sort of metadata fingerprint, eventually our lives will be, well, naked.

How will we deal with that? Some say to relax, that we’ll adapt to that change just like we have to every other change. I have some ideas on that, but I will save them for the next blog. Cheers.

 Tucker, Patrick The Naked Future: What Happens In A World That Anticipates Your Every Move? New York, Penquin, 2014.
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Progress update: webcomic and graphic novel.

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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.

Progress update

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.

 

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How important is realism and what makes it real?

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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.

Kristin Broulliard's silent commentary.
Kristin Broulliard’s silent commentary.

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.

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Finding Design Fiction in my Graphic Novel, Part 2

Last post, I discussed the how luminous implants in the fingertips and nano-chip implants near the brain were the 22nd century answer to everything from exchanging phone numbers, to surfing the web (now called the Lightstream), and communicating. These fingertip implants are also your virtual keyboard and “tapping” the  learned sequence allows you to adjust your body temperature, endocrine infusions, even release special pheromones. There is much more to discuss on this topic and how the characters actually use these advancements continue to be revealed in subsequent chapters, but today I’m covering some of the world design that went into The Lightstream Chronicles.

An advantage of fabricating a virtual world in three dimensions is that everything can be built to scale with as much realism as desired. Everything that the “camera” sees therefore, must be created or found, given texture and color, and it has to be built with sufficient detail to hold up “under the magnifying glass.”

While the story takes place in only one city, it was a vast undertaking. Hong Kong was built to scale using GPS data, satellite photography and Google Maps. If a character travels across town, it is helpful to calculate how they get there and how long it will take. True scale and distance is helpful in making these story details cohesive.

For architecture, almost all of the high-rise structures in TopCity, the newest and most modern part of the city, there was no precedent so all the models had to be created from scratch. These were designed as taller versions of 21st century buildings, some of which are 400 stories. Some of these were built to include detailed atriums, aircraft landing pads, restaurants and bars, though they may not actually have a part in the final story. Other parts of the world were combinations of stock models, and customized 3D modifications. When scenes take place in DownTown, for example, which is essentially the low-rise sprawl of 20th century Hong Kong, Asian city-architecture has a particular look and feel. Finding stock models was difficult, but there were a few models available that captured the essence of lower-middle class Asian city dwellings. These were purchased then modified and customized to achieve the city look of DownTown. Additional elements were added such as signage, a 22nd century version of street vending as well as the effects of decades of decay and neglect in the shadow of the TopCity Spanner.

A scene from DownTown in the Mong Kok Sector, Hong Kong 2. Year 2159.
A scene from DownTown in the Mong Kok Sector, Hong Kong 2. Year 2159. Click to enlarge.

The TopCIty Spanner was a bit of architectural inspiration. In the story, the structure which covers most of old Hong, provides a clean break between TopCity and DownTown. The spanner uses high strength, lightweight, “programmable” materials that provide the ability to shift shape organically and accommodates new growth. The Spanner became the new “street level” towering 50 stories above the original streets of Hong Kong.

The TopCity Spanner is the dividing line between TopCity and DownTown in the Hong Kong of the future. Check it out at http://thelightstreamchronicles.com
The TopCity Spanner is the dividing line between TopCity and DownTown in the Hong Kong of the future. Check it out at http://thelightstreamchronicles.com

Thus far, all of the interiors are original creations, built from scratch populated with stock and custom props, furniture or general stuff that a stylist might select for a photo shoot or movie. Stock props were particularly useful in some interior scenes. There is little sense in rebuilding a Barcelona chair if a nicely built model already exists. A scene in chapter 2, however, calls for a food and beverage replicator, so it must be designed. Other props, including dining and glassware, desks and tables, levitating chairs, screens, weapons, interfaces and a plethora of signage were also custom creations. Many of these items can be seen on The Lightstream Chronicles site.

 

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Why design fiction is design research—or should be.

Something of a continuation from my last post…

There’s no question that designers are broadening their contributions beyond the conventional practices of making things, spaces and visuals. Some “designers” are moving into the fringes where, we find more “wicked problems”, ones that involve purpose and society, economics and models for sustainability. I see design fiction as applicable to all of these as a method of design research and as a potentially important means of anticipating and planning.

There are scholars out there who write long papers and have lengthy discussions on what constitutes design research. Mostly, when I read them my head hurts but not always. I was reading a [rather old] discussion on Portigal’s site and this comment by Christopher Fahey caught my attention: “Design research doesn’t care about the economic and emotional factors going into whether or not a consumer can be compelled to buy a product, focusing only on how the product is used — which can include emotional and even economic factors. Design research is not concerned with “conversion.” Design fiction fits nicely here, but design research is big territory, so I’m sure that while the idea of designing things into the fabric of a speculative culture doesn’t meet all the criteria, in this instance it does. Because design fiction clearly exists outside of what Bleecker refers to as the “sweet-spot” of [Dubberly’s Venn diagram] the desirable, profitable, and possible, it is free to explore in the fringes of the maybe or the “what if?” These might include ideas like desirable and profitable, but not yet possible, or almost possible—possibly even just plausible [Bleecker].

There is already activity in design research that follows a similar track. “…design and design research share with engineering a fundamental interest in focusing on the world as it could be, on the imagination and realization of possible futures, as well as on the disclosure of new worlds. This implies a reflection of the contingencies of our world today, and of the practices for creating, imagining, and materializing new worlds” (Grand & Wiedmer, 2010, p2.).

“What if?”, can be an effective tool in design thinking. A simple question that erases conventional boundaries that can begin as simply as, “What if we do…?”, “What if we don’t…?”, “What if it does…?”, or “What if it doesn’t…?” can often start a journey onto innovative pathways, not always productive, but often yielding unexpected outcomes.

It could be argued that this type of thinking might find its greatest advantage beyond design, perhaps in politics, government, medicine or technology where solutions that seem, at first, universally positive, result in unexpected and unintended consequences. It seems to me that this is precisely the underpinning that we find in many science fiction narratives with dystopian futures.

In Allenby and Sarewitz’s The Techno-Human Condition, they identify an interesting characteristic that plagues designers (and the rest of us, too). We tend to see everything as a problem to be solved, when it is actually a condition to be acknowledged. The authors describe an approach that does not expect, “fundamental changes in human nature, or redemption through technology. (160)” As they mount their case, “Our problem is that we want to turn everything into a problem that can be solve, when those problems are in fact conditions…” This could include everything from climate change, to greed, spirituality, religious cultures, good, evil and their fluid interpretations. But these very characteristics of the argument they say are symptomatic of a, “world unable (and perhaps increasingly unable) to come to grips with what it does to itself. (160)”

Design fiction can contribute here, because it plays in a land of futuristic ethnography. It puts us in a different culture, (even if it’s just the culture of the next 20 minutes), and of the people mixed up in that culture. It becomes a story and gives legibility to options, examines scenarios and acknowledges conditions in the process. It can be a strong contribution, maybe even a critical step in analyzing what we make next.

 

Bib.

Allenby, Braden & Sarewitz, Daniel. The Techno-Human Condition. MIT Press, Cambridge. 2011

Grand, Simon; Wiedmer, Martin. “Design Fiction: A Method Toolbox for Design Research in a Complex World”. University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland.

 

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Designing the future.

“Futurism was an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century.” [1] But that’s not the kind of futurism I’m talking about. “Futurists… or futurologists are scientists and social scientists whose speciality is to attempt to systematically predict the future, whether that of human society in particular or of life on earth in general.” [2]  Though many futurist predictions have come to pass, it seems to me pretty iffy business and at the rate that things change the singularity may be not be such a wacky idea after all. There is a Wiki definition for the singularity, too. A comfortable definition could be the point at which technology becomes so advanced; predicting what will come next is impossible.

Of course, I am not a scientist or sociologist by training but I am a designer, and in many ways, designers are expected to call upon science and social science whenever they are designing. We are designing for people and society, after all. As a designer, if you’re not thinking that way, well, you should be.

So, like it or not, designers called upon to be some kind of a futurist. In my current pursuit of a dramatic design fiction, I have to ask myself, “What will design be like in 2159?” It’s more than a century away. Who can know? The answer is: part science, part design, and part fiction.

As I have argued, design and culture are inextricably linked, synergistically influencing one another. They will be producing and affecting one another whatever utopian or dystopian future you can imagine. Hence, some of my future design will be the result of speculation on a particular scientific thread, that if it remains connected, might produce something that functions or looks a certain way, and some of it will inevitably be done for sheer effect or mood (at the end of the day, this is dramatic story). Some of it will be garish or ugly; conditions that will probably not go away no matter how advanced we become.

Ah, but therein lies the drama. Good and evil are more than tenuous threads that you pull gently into a possible future — they are (in the British sense) bloody cables. Take it to the bank. There will be stunning achievements and dismal failures. While we will make beautiful things, solve epic problems and ease great suffering, not everything will be bright and shiny, sleek and effortless. We will also invent unimaginable horrors, new ways to sin and profane our creations.Regardless of how far our technology advances, the human condition remains more or less steadfast through the centuries.

As a Christian, I believe that we are created in the imago dei: the Image of God, that design, is a kind of divine inheritance from the Master Creator to the design pupil. But we live in changing times. The master narrative that I live by is very much under fire right now. Who knows? In 50 years, it may be outlawed. How will that affect design? One of the questions you stumble over when designers ask, “What if?”

I guess the designer has to be part philosopher, too. I’ll hit on the more nuts and bolts side of future design in another post.

[1], [2] Wikipedia

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Working on Hong Kong 2159.

Although I have not revealed the storyline for my graphic novel, I am prepared to reveal a little about the setting. As you guessed from the title it is set beyond the near future — 148 years to be exact. The city is Hong Kong. Without going into too much backstory, this is where the global government is located. Countries, as we know them, are gone. New Asia is the broader amalgamation of  the Asia of today, Europe and the former United States. The city has evolved through building continually upward. The “road car” is gone, replaced with the air version. With the advent of air taxis and all manner of flying craft, the top of the city is the new facade. Instead of entering at the bottom of a building and riding up and then to rooftops that are essentially abandoned places, the world becomes reversed. The show is at the top and so is the money and prestige. The layers as it were start at 150 stories and work their way down. Under 25 you find yourself in a city of disrepair and darkness. The bottom city is a place of crime and poverty, even in 2159. And while mankind has made quantum leaps in technology, crime has managed to keep pace in new and creative ways. Much of it legalized. But that’s going too far for today’s blog.

At any rate, the top world is where you will find all the advertising, the glamour, the enticements. Every rooftop now has a docking zone or an airlock (it gets windy up there) for patrons to offload and play. Lots to think about.  More to come in the August synopsis.

 

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The otherly graphic novel. Part 2.

A week or so ago I wrote about how comics are particularly different from just about any other medium. I tried to illustrate this by showing, in the words of Scott McCloud, that “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, (1993:8)” fine-tuning by the artists hand, and deliberate planning by the writer can use visuals carry the weight of paragraphs of exposition. Don’t get me wrong. Reading pages, paragraphs, or sentences of exposition are probably my favorite part of fiction, better in some cases that the evolving storyline. Why? Because, when it’s done well, you can see it in your incredibly opulent imagination. In comics, which we have come to agree in this blog is what a graphic novel is when it’s not being self-conscious, the burden lies heavily on the visual. In this respect, sequential art shares something with the movies. But as the prolific, acclaimed writer of comics Alan Moore says, a film moves at a predetermined pace, “…if I’m watching a film I’m trapped in the rigid framework dictated by the film’s running time. I must immerse myself in the flow of the film and hope I’ll pick up on enough of the constant flow of details to make coherent sense of the story at the end.” (2007:5). This brings to light the idea of time and how only comics, thus far, can address it in a wholly unique way. On the comics’ page as the panels flow from one image to the next, we can capture time, past present and future within the same viewspace. Ah, but with a DVD, I can go back and forth as well. Yes, but currently that is still a linear experience. I cannot see them all at the same time and because they are all in front of me on the comics’ page, I am getting a unique and particularly different experience.

Add to that the multi-modal braining that is required to interpret image and word along with the leap between panels (the gutter, the gap, the whitespace) the “closure” required to bridge what is happening from image to image is yet another example of the otherly nature of the art form. And this is by no means an exhaustive list of what separates the comics medium from the rest of narrative form — just another one.

McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics. New York: Paradox Press.

Moore, Alan. 2007. Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics. Rantoul, IL: Avatar Press.

 

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