Hearing the commotion from the hall, the designer puts down his scalpel. A security officer comes in the swinging, double doors of the lab, out of breath, as the designer stands. “No problem here, zir. One of them writers broke out of containment. It took the full charge on two tasers, but we got it wrangled now. We’re taking it back to the tank, and then we’ll be back to clean up the mess on the floor. Wish they didn’t always void their bowels like that….” The officer was gone.
The designer sits back down on his minimalist steel stool, and picks up the blade. It might be part of the realities of doing design-fiction, but an interruption is an interruption. Increasing the magnification on the goggles, the designer brings the scalpel low over the text for another slice. The page shrinks back instinctively, as the sharp edge parts its fibers…
I couldn’t consider myself much of a young writer knowledgeable about the technological zeitgeist if I couldn’t preach to a particular choir about the particular concept developed in the last five years known as “design-fiction”. Like anything else these days, the truth no doubt resists easy categorization, being multi-faceted, and having different characteristics and attributes at different times and in different settings, depending who is measuring, and from where they are looking. Luckily, abstraction is my chosen art form, and building characters that are easily readable is a skill fundamentally component to my nature, almost as much as design-sense comes naturally to those who can afford Adobe Creative Suite. Without too much beating about the bush, I’m going to weave a little narrative about design-fiction; just a couple of multi-touch gestures on our collective interface here.
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Let me begin by unilaterally defining design-fiction as the theory and practice behind conflating design, “building things that exist”, with fiction, “making up shit that doesn’t exist”. Design-fiction—either through its own limited fictional proposition or on the back of pre-existing works of fiction—links a fictional narrative regarding a proposed object, with some image, shadow, ghost, dream, or otherwise hologrammically-real design of that object. It could be a mock up of a car from Blade Runner, it could be a functioning hologram like in Star Wars. It could be the proposed features of a cell phone that could exist, if only the technology was available as specified. Or it could be the working prototype of something entirely useful, if certain fictional conditions were true. Most generally, design-fiction take “the future” as the generic narrative for its activity, and uses only enough fictional glue as is necessary to prop the designed object up upon that plane. No doubt, the makers of design-fiction experience a bit of perceived freedom in this activity. With this tool, they can give context to design ideas that wouldn’t otherwise be taken seriously. Fiction was something that reality merchants used to avoid, but now it is a new territory, just waiting to be settled. The designers and engineers, after decades (or centuries, depending who is doing the counting) of attempting to maintain their privileged control over the domain of reality, have suddenly noticed that there is an entire new world available in the realm of unreal, and are building new colonies as we speak to tap these fictional deposits.
The resource of fiction has proven invaluable to the design community. It is a fertile land for farming new ideas. It is a forest of raw timber, just waiting to be processed into something profitable. It is a mineral resource: a treasure trove of value just underneath the soil, which the natives refuse to profit by, at least until they are put to work mining and smelting it to store and back the value of the new economy of this land, in which fiction creators are now lucky enough to participate.
We, the fiction makers, used to do simple arts and crafts. Little stories, films, and comic books. Did you know that when we used to be able to freely hunt the elk of imagination, we’d use every part of the animal? We’d use the hide for plot, the bone for characters, and the antlers would be our lifestyle. (We’d even eat the genitals, for the sexual content which we believed it imbued our fiction.) We had a true respect for the environment of fiction, when we lived in harmony with its spirits. But that time has past, and we’ve been woken up to the new economy. Now we sell to the tourists along the highway, and if we’re lucky, get a job in design-fiction’s factory lines, hopefully with enough time to still practice the fictive arts around the fire, at home in the evening. We show off the goods that we have as the designers come around on buying tours. A positive nod from a designer, a mention in a bibliography or a name-drop in a project… well, that could make a career for one of us. Our fiction could be discovered, and we could be whisked off to the lab, to have our fiction milked for years-worth of homogenized product-fantasies, and our genetic material cloned into sterile keynote after keynote. If we are good and docile, we might even find a privileged pet position as “Director of Visionary Hype” at some publicly-traded corporation. We could be the monkey that gets to go home with the scientist.
Today, the magic no longer exists in our fiction, but in what they can do with our fiction. By the manifest destiny of design, the wonders of the future have been created in real life, with the subjugation of fiction to the anvil of reality. All classes have indeed benefited from this abundance. What wonders we have, on the bleeding edge of this economic extraction! We have “cyberspace”. We have virtual reality. Augmented reality. We have billions of phones that would be no more than simple radios if not touched by the magic hand of design, transmuting them into “cyborg” appendages, and we celebrate them for the virility they imbue within us. The value of everyday things like touch-screen interfaces, environmental sensors, and vehicular transportation increases exponentially when inseminated with “design-fiction”. It is the ultimate gamification, the hand of design-fiction, turning what would be ordinary stuff into exploding, plinging, gold coins, making all of technology and fiction seamlessly function For The Win. What once was merely the artistic present, is now the valuable future.
Cue the Disney-produced GM animation. Or rather, cue the Vimeo cut. Or even better, just play the entirety of Minority Report. Or, let us crowd-source a film version of Neuromancer, so we can slip once more into a sweet visual fantasy dimension, of endless flowing tides of VC and Kickstarter love and dollars.
I stretch the truth a bit, of course. Because I am a writer, and this is what I do. I make stuff up, at least to a certain degree. I invent worlds that don’t exist, for other people’s amusement. I simplify and I abstract to make a point, and to write something hopefully concrete and understandable. I draw the lines that no one else is willing to draw, and then give it away free: my own little bit of folk art. To get these bothersome ideas out of my head, and onto the web. Just doing my part, as a serf of fiction. Carrying my little crowd-sourced bag of fictional dirt up the wall of the pit mine that is the internet.
But I must answer for my quota of cotton; I need to bring you something for re-sale, and not just my little straw men. I can’t just spin fiction off into the wind, and so it must mean something. So I must ask, seriously: when it comes to the reality of design-fiction: what is it that we are doing here? How is it—and why is it—that fiction is actually being taken “seriously” when it is conflated with cool little technological gadgets, with visionary architecture, with high-profile names in the design world? Why is it only now that “fiction” is allowed to become almost “real” when printed on a design pamphlet or wired to an Arduino board, minted into the coinage of design-fiction? Should we who create fiction accept this colonization? What was fiction before design-fiction? Is design-fiction merely the modern extension and the next prototype of fiction: the future of fiction?
It seems that many people thought books and literature were only ever entertaining side-pursuits in our cultural history; that literature only came close to science in the form of library science. But fiction has always been a part of historical reality, long before design-fiction so kindly discovered the power of future-affirmation to it. Fiction has a very human purpose: it is the singularly important task of assembling, what I would call, a “mechanism of desires”. Fiction expresses the raw, chaotic power of human life through its material components. Through its own technology of imagery, thematic archetype, language, and other media forms, fiction expresses the depths of our species’ life in the continuum of past, present and future, and indeed, it is the only way we ever have. We talk about ourselves via the form of literature, or fictive writing, and also in music, film, art, and any other expression in which we might be able to conceive or perceive a narrative. Sure, often it is, strictly, “made up”. But this is the creative element—in order to better express those dark human desires underlying our societies, to project the hard-to-define emotions that pulse within our living existence, we must not be constrained to the plane of reality that those in the physical sciences hold themselves within. And in this way, fiction is entirely real—as real as emotion and thought, as real as our egos, as real as the mutable species-entity known as “humanity” that unites all of us with a similar genotype. It utilizes as its energy the chaotic reality of human life, and constructs a branching, cultural pipeline for this energy to flow within. And all this time, you thought you were just reading words!
Apart from this deep, underlying function, fiction is also useful for a great many other things as part of its expressive nature. We’re aware of the general humanistic good of consuming fine literature, of the entertaining feature of films, of the social aspect of music. Fiction can motivate and inspire humans to “real-life” activity in a variety of arenas, and physical design and technological invention is surely one of these. But over and above inspiration, design-fiction’s functionality has what could be considered to be a more insidious mechanism.
What is the purpose of attempting to design a cyberspace deck? What do we gain from building a Minority Report display interface? Why work on a product that only will ever exist within a story, pre-existing as separate narrative, or written specifically for that gadget? When we assume the design-fiction mantle of Future-Vision, what is the motivation? It is four-fold: 1) We believe these devices would be cool or otherwise meaningful in real life. 2) We believe they would perhaps be successfully marketable products, if they could be created. 3) We want to see if it can be done. 4) We buy into the fictional fantasy world of generic future-tense, and we commit to design-fiction as a way to express our mental investment and solidarity with that forward-leaning worldview. These reasons all have a common thread: once a technological gadget can be identified in a fictional way, a part of us wants to port this fiction to reality.
These are the reasons behind the majority of design-fiction, and as such, design-fiction is no more than steampunk. I don’t intend to drag steampunk through the mud by association, either; steampunk is a fine hobby. There is no reason not to port fiction to reality, as a prop. Play-acting is a form of fiction consumption, and always has been. A prop, just its progenitor the classical theater mask, is simultaneously real and not real. But design-fiction is kidding itself if it believes it can simply make the fictional real, to make it less than a prop. And that to do so is any more than gluing gears to vests for sale on Etsy, to sell shit by calling it Shinola.
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Play acting is all well and good, but when the props are treated as real, there is a psychotic sort of commodification underway. The psychosis is a disavowal—a forced rejection of the entire fictional mechanism except for that one value point, “to make the future real”. It is a cauterizing excision of a segment of the fiction, cut out and fused into an independent object with only one quantifiable dimension. Ripped out of its context, the purpose of fiction as a whole is conveniently forgotten, and the gadget object is reduced to a commodity, existing only in terms of its market value. The expressive component of play-acting is dead. Design-fiction is a fetish pushed to the point of absolute objectification; it is no longer a node of pleasure, only a dried and homogenized portion of the original fiction, ready to be sold in consumer-ready packages. The future is no longer a vanishing point of progress in a real-unreal network of invention and art, but a quantified MSRP. It is to reduce all speculation to the assumption that what could exist must exist, and would, in existence, be valuable. It is to make this supposed value the end-all of all creativity. You can hook a disembodied dog head up to a blood pump, and watch it try to live. But why would you do that? Design-fiction has such questions to answer.
We don’t celebrate Neuromancer because it contains the idea of cyberspace; we celebrate the idea of cyberspace because it is part of Neuromancer. Neuromancer is less about the actual proposition of a virtual realm called cyberspace accessible through communication technology, and more about the feeling of micro-gravity. It is about the human wish to fly. Cyberspace gets the press, because it is an easily identifiable term, and not a more ethereal thematic concept. The coined phrase is its own commodity value. We recall that the end of the book take place in earth-orbit, as the cowboy of the virtual space is forced by physical circumstances to take his metaphorical combat into the world. The book is about dimensions that are unreal, and no less real. It is about manufactured space in general, and the new physics that we must learn to live within. It is about the new thermodynamics of information, and such immutable laws that would birth the sublime triple point of black ice. It is about the life that develops in unreal physical environments, life that is both human, and non-human. In the time since the book was written, the Internet has come to life. Cyberspace is now an actual thing, different than the cyberspace in the book. But the human desire, and ultimately, the need to fly through our invented territorial realms is still real, both in reality and the original fiction.
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Design-fiction reduces the mechanism of fiction to one more corporate R&D department, convinced that it’s products are something more than just products. The fictional, thinner-than-thin, design-fiction smart phone is a product of dimensional flattening, reducing the real environment of information technology and communications to point at which it is just another virtual icon, that we flick across the surface of our real phones despondently: the killer app of the week. Such so-called “fiction” downsizes the network assemblage of human creativity and desire-engineering, replacing it with the boring repetition of the start-up model. How it works and what it does is less important than how quickly it can be pushed to market, or more likely, to the blog. It minimizes the desire that drove creativity to express itself through dynamic fiction into no more than a meter of quantitative investment and click-through interest, that can be channelled as is liked for best returns. So you’ve stimulated the nerve endings with desire for a phone that will never be sold. It’s creative output is made-you-look. The fiction might as well have never existed, and all that was manufactured was the lie. It’s thinking you don’t have to feed your dog as long as you keep ringing the Pavlovian bell. It’s inventing the Happy Meal toy before the shooting the film. At best, it’s bad fiction. At worst, the most you are affecting your audience with is lead poisoning.
Design-fiction would have you avoid the vast mechanism of real fiction, and invest in what is made up as a secondary commodification. It would have you forget about the book, and concentrate on the deck. It would sell you an Ono-Sendai T-shirt, not to bring the book to life, but in order to brand you into the fan club. The book is alive already, and its position as a classic work of fiction is the proof. If there was a cyberspace deck, it would be a piece of memorabilia to put under glass on a shelf. Something to sell online, if you were lucky enough to have an actual box to ship. What would be the purpose of a cyberspace deck today? We already have the interfaces that best conflate our needs to connect to our networks with the technology we have available. Design, without the fiction, is already delivering on the dream. It may be an interesting exercise to consider why we have smart phones rather than cyberspace decks—but this is a theoretical exploration between the work of fiction and reality, and something for writers to bother themselves with, rather than designers.
And then on to the next one. Remake each book into a film, and each film into a phone. What can you quantify the rights to, and convert into a design-fiction option? How about Minority Report? The Minority-Report-Interface (MRI) is now a completely isolated, flat piece of fiction separate from the fiction from which it is derived. Amputated from the work of fiction, in which it is an important image of the thematic import of the work—a larger theme of truth, evidence, and the foreseeable future—the device itself is now only a milestone about technological progress. When will we have the MRI? When, when, when? And how much will it cost? The future will only be here when we can gesture in space and construct a narrative of the future at our whim. But this forgets the point of Minority Report as a work of fiction: the idea of the work is that the future cannot be predicted, and cannot be constructed at our whim. In our manic gesturing towards the gadget-of-the-future, we’ve missed the whole point. The reality of fiction has been replaced by an urge towards false, isolated commodity.
Are objects pulled into the “real” world and isolated from the assemblage which invented them, even to be considered real? These simulacra of fiction seem to double down on the fakery. In fact, the entire woven mechanism of fictional meaning from which these objects grew before they were harvested like clones, the question of the worth of technology as an element of human existence from which have the fruitful discipline known as Science-Fiction seems more real. In open speculation and the intricate programming of fiction, I see more reality than in the commodification of potential-product. What is more real: the cyborg in the horror film, or the hardwired, uncanny horror that causes us to invent cyborgs in fiction, to keep us looking even though we wish we could turn away? What is more alarming—uncanny human subjects, on the border point between humanity and object, or uncanny objects, on the border point between creativity and capitalistic exploitation?
But let me call curtain. Enough with my own play-acting here, and philosophical slight-of-hand. Let me end this fictive fantasy I’m spinning, and return to reality. These post-colonial memories—they aren’t yours. This was a nightmare, from which we all can easily wake up. Fiction and object design are both equally real. They are all real, but only together, united as they always were.
I’ve been giving design-fiction an especially hard time, trying to seed its practitioners with a horrible dream, in which they are the enemies of the future, rather than its saviors and heralds. As the brainwashing super-villian in this narrative, I speak for an a-vocal, imagined constituency against a trumped up enemy. Us designers of fiction (not designers of design-fiction) are, in general, so pleased to finally be taken seriously that we almost forget to take our newly discovered importance as an insult. And so, I’ve lobbed the perceived insult playfully back towards my characterization of the design-fictioners, if only to have them finally look up into the sky for what might one day actually condense in reality with enough weight to hit them in the face.
Behind this little bit of territorial posturing, the relationship between the real and the fictional is the same terrain that we’ve always traversed. Our ideas, both of fiction and of physical invention, grow as nodes in the network—starting independently, connecting, separating, and eventually fading in importance. The lasting effect of anything, technological or artistic, is its ability to network with everything else in a connecting, transmitting relationship, rather than as a cancerous, pooling sink of resources. Both fiction and reality are simultaneous. Isolation and consolidation of nodes will occur, and there is nothing wrong with picking particular pieces of fruit as they grow. But reality only occurs simultaneously amid real-world praxis and the extensive networks of the creative production of fantasy. Keep your hammer in one hand, and your dreams in the other.
And in the end, recognition of this truth is my fantasy of the future. We who create fiction don’t have to view the design world as an expropriating, gentrifying force. We can work as a team with the designers. The designers are no doubt just as interested in our characters and the overall fictive headspace as they are in our marketable gadgets. And the world of engineering can be the same fertile ground for creativity, as fiction can be for design. They can let us into their studios and laboratories just as we let them into our heads. This was the origin of Science-Fiction, of course; and it is the continuing legacy of speculative fiction of all categories. Writers, artists, and creators of all media continue to be informed by the world around them just as we inform it with our work, and in this society of continual connecting networks, we ought to turn up the bandwidth, and upload as much data to the commons as we realistically can.
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But in that effort, design-fiction: I urge you to remember who constitutes reality in this relationship. I may write on a computer, and access the cloud through the prouduct of your brilliant, visionary interface. But your imagination, your creativity, your humanity—you read these inscriptions off of the broad back of fiction. This world and its aspirations were built by fiction, and fiction keeps it. Remember, design-fiction, that when you dream, you are in our hands. We are you, while you sleep.