Tag Archives: speculative futures

A guerrilla future realized.

This week my brilliant students in Collaborative Studio 4650 provided a real word guerrilla future for the Humane Technologies: Livable Futures Pop-Up Collaboration at The Ohio State University. The design fiction was replete with diegetic prototypes and a video enactment. Out goal was to present a believable future in 2024 when ubiquitous AR glasses are the part of our mundane everyday. We made the presentation in Sullivant Hall’s Barnett Theater, and each member of the team had a set of mock AR glasses. The audience consisted of about 50 students ranging from the humanities to business. It was an amazing experience. It has untold riches for my design fiction research, but there were also a lot of revelations about how we experience, and enfold technology. After the presentation, we pulled out the white paper and markers and divided up into groups for a more detailed deconstruction of what transpired. While I have not plowed through all the scrolls that resulted from the post-presentation discussion groups, it seems universal that we can recognize how technology is apt to modify our behavior. It is also interesting to see that most of us have no clue how to resist these changes. Julian Oliver wrote in his (2011) The Critical Engineering Manifesto,

“5. The Critical Engineer recognises that each work of engineering engineers its user, proportional to that user’s dependency upon it.”

The idea of being engineered by our technology was evident throughout the AugHumana presentation video, and in discussions, we quickly identified the ways in which our current technological devices engineer us. At the same time, we feel more or less powerless to change or effect that phenomenon. Indeed, we have come to accept these small, incremental, seemingly mundane, changes to our behavior as innocent or adaptive in a positive way. En masse, they are neither. Kurzweil stated that,

‘We are not going to reach the Singularity in some single great leap forward, but rather through a great many small steps, each seemingly benign and modest in scope.’

History has shown that these steps are incrementally embraced by society and often give way to systems with a life of their own. An idea raised in one discussion group was labeled as effective dissent, but it seems almost obvious that unless we anticipate these imminent behavioral changes, by the time we notice them it is already too late, either because the technology is already ubiquitous or our habits and procedures solidly support that behavior.

There are ties here to material culture and the philosophy of technology that merits more research, but the propensity for technology to affect behavior in an inhumane way is powerful. These are early reflections, no doubt to be continued.

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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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News from a speculative future.

I  thought I’d take a creative leap today with a bit of future fiction. Here is a short, speculative future news article based on a plausible trajectory of science, tech and social policy.

18 November 2018
The Senate passed a bill today that gives the green light to Omzin Corp. and the nation’s largest insurer, the federal government, to require digital monitoring of health care recipients. Omzin Corp. is the manufacturer of a microscopic additive that is slated to become part of all prescription drugs. When ingested, the additive reacts with the stomach acids to transmit a signal to the insurer verifying that patients have taken their medication. A spokesperson for the federal government’s Universal Enrollment Plan (UEP), said that the Omzin additive was approved by the FDA as completely safe and would be a significant benefit to patients who have difficulty keeping track of complicated lists of medications and prescription requirements. The patient then naturally eliminates the tiny additive. A new ACAapp allows health care recipients to track on their mobile phone which drugs they have taken and when. The information is also transmitted to the health care provider. Opponents of the bill state that the legislation is a violation of privacy and tantamount to forced medication of the population. “Some people can avoid drugs through improved diet and exercise, but this bill pre-empts patients who would like to pursue that option,” according to Hub Garner a representative from citizens group MedChoice. “Patients who opt-in to the program will pay less for their insurance than those who defy the order,” said Senate minority leader

Some definite possibilities here for future artifacts, i.e., design fictions. Remember, design fictions are provocations of possible futures for the purposes of discussion and debate. Plausible or outrageous? What do you think?

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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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Science fiction: Near, distant or far? Why is The Lightstream Chronicles set in 2159?

Science fiction author William Gibson said,

“Personally I think that contemporary reality is sufficiently science fiction for me. Some critics are already maintaining that science fiction is a sort of historical category and it is not possible any more…I have to figure out what it means to try to write about the future at a time when we are all living in the shadow of at least half a dozen wildly science fiction scenarios.”1

I am not of this opinion. I think it is still possible to write compelling near, distant and far future fiction. The frustrating part is often the off-the-cuff critiques, and quick dismissals that any trope such as robotics, or immortality immediately render the work a rehash. I’ve heard this many times. So, it was an conscious decision when writing the original script to make this a distant future fiction.

I follow Robert Heinlein’s definition of science fiction:

“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.”

With that it is incumbent upon the author to hold those realistic speculations in one hand and with the other, threads of the present that could stretch far into the future.

One of my primary thematic motivations is speculating on human and transhuman futures. To me, based on present day facts, seminal aspects of transhumanism are already in place. We already have cochlear implants, artificial hearts, robotic limbs, transmitting health monitors, and other technological improvements built into our bodies. Without some sort of wild card devastation (which could derail any speculative future) here is no reason to consider a decline in the sophistication and amplification of health-assisting technologies. As with most technologies that, over time, etch themselves into our culture, these will become progressively more accepted as logical improvements to our natural bodies. Based on the current rate of technological advancement and the propensity for technology to grow exponentially, it is not unreasonable to consider a neart future—say 10 to 15 years—where our natural human bodies are significantly enhanced by multiple technologies from retinal implants, to augmented reality, in the form of organs, genetic adjustments, replacements, and interventions designed to keep us younger, sharper, and better in some demonstrable way.

This 10 to 15 year future could easily be the premise of a “near future” design fiction (and perhaps my next book will take that track), but I wanted to follow the threads deeper for two primary reasons. First, is the pragmatic reason that it takes a long time to write and produce a graphic novel of this complexity and I did not want to embark upon a race with technology to complete my story before the speculative future was either no longer speculative or was simply wrong. The second reason, is that small changes, to me, are not disruptive enough to provoke discussion and debate. An incremental change, one that seems like the logical next step, runs the danger of appearing too rational and “on course” to disrupt our present day thought processes (i.e., Her). If we only observe incremental trajectories, we cease to contemplate the long term.

The argument against long-term, future speculation is that it ceases to be plausible because, by then,  “anything can happen”. But this is merely a truism. The fact is, anything usually does not happen. There is an enormous amount of logical speculation that can be derived from what usually does happen given the human condition. If you combine the human factor with plausible advancements in technology—given reasonable trajectories of scientific focus—then we are, in fact, dealing with realistic speculative futures.

This brings me to the narrative itself. If you want to take the next few steps, and look beyond incremental change, to the logical next steps of viable AI, and synthetic humans, fully realistic and indiscernible virtual reality, functioning telepathy, ubiquitous surveillance and indefinite life-pans, then to exert a firm grasp on the science and the current gaps that exist, the only responsible thing to do is move your story into the distant future. To accomplish this you don’t need a 300 year Star Trek future but rather two or three generations from where we are now. This places us in a distant future of approximately 150 years. In my estimation, you just can’t plausibly get there any sooner.

If we want to talk about these logical trajectories we have to place ourselves in a setting that permits them to exist. Then we can look back on how they came to be. To me, this is the crux of design fiction. You may not like it, but the idea is provocation and examination of the futures we incrementally build. If you may think it passé and stereotypical, then you might also find yourself quickly bored of stories that also include tropes such as life, death, love and redemption.


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