Design fiction isn’t a movement, it’s a tool, maybe even a methodology. And while we can loosely define the parameters by which design fiction functions such as the use of diegetic prototypes, and the intent to provocation, there are no other guidelines by which we use this thing. In my MFA thesis I examined a range of possible expressions from film, to performance and even the graphic novel as a means of producing the realism that fosters the provocative. Because the whole concept of design fiction lacks formality, the intent behind it strongly influences the way it is realized. We can go from Microsoft, Corning or Sony making the world a better place with their respective innovations that don’t yet exist but that we should excitedly anticipate seeing in the very near future, or the quasi-political conscientiousness of Stuart Candy, or the sometimes tongue-in-cheek provocations of Julian Bleecker. The corporate examples are self-serving and promotional. The real practitioners, like Candy, Dunagan, Bleecker, et. al. are designed to make us think—about what we are doing as a society, as a technocracy, as individual participants and sometimes framers of what the world will be like next Tuesday. This is the area in which I participate. As a designer, I don’t believe we stop often enough to ask ourselves what we are doing. We are very much caught up with what we can do and seldom involved in what we should do. The design business has embraced the idea of sustainability and has become a flag bearer for the movement. So while there is much ado about the affects of a thing or a place on the environment there is very little discussion, if any, about the behavioral, societal, and cultural ramifications of design decisions. This exactly design fiction play an important role. Design fiction and future artifacts, in this sense, become a kind of evidence from the future of the ramifications from today’s decisions.
The semi-synchronous role of cyberpunk fiction
In a recent article in the New York Review of Science Fiction, James Patrick Kelly delves into what defines cyberpunk and brings forward a number of Bruce Sterling’s descriptions from his introduction to The Mirrorshades Anthology. I have quoted one of these previously. As Kelly quotes from Sterling,
“‘Certain central themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion: prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alteration. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry—techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self. (xi)'”
Kelly lists a number of authors from the 80’s cyberpunk heyday with more of Sterling.
“Their stories were more personal, using technology to explore what it meant to be human. They wanted science fiction to acknowledge that changes to what we do are not as important as changes to who we are. “For the Cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often inside our minds” (Sterling, Mirrorshades, Introduction xi).
Indeed this is the design fiction which has become another of Sterling’s neologisms. And we can see from where it sprung. Delving into the future of objects and technologies and their effect on the technosocial context as a means to uncover the downside is uncomfortable to think about.
“It’s important to explicitly acknowledge the drawbacks of any technological transformation—to “think the underside first,” to think in a precautionary way” (Sterling, Shaping Things12).
As Kelly states,
“In Gibson’s 1982 story ‘Burning Chrome,’ there was a line that the Cyberpunks were fond of quoting: ‘The street finds its own uses for things’ (199). They meant to say that we will repurpose technology—or anything, for that matter—for whatever suits us without regard for the designer’s intentions.”
Which brings us back to design fiction. Throughout my process, in the continuous morphing of story and design as part of The Lightstream Chronicles, I gained a solid respect for the complexity that surrounds the society and culture, how everything is connected in some way to everything else, that nothing is a simple as it seems, and that no design is benign.
Design creates ripples.
There are consequences, and too often design is seen in isolation as an end unto itself. It is never that easy. Design lives on, and often in ways the designer does not see or consider. If design stops with the “solution,” it misses far broader implications of an expanding network of potentialities. As it ages, design continues to contribute in positive or negative ways. In the same way, the social forces that incite design have their own sometimes-frail dependencies that may not last, or could last too long.