Monday, November 03, 2008

Object-oriented futuring

Designer and researcher Julian Bleecker of The Near Future Laboratory and Nokia is currently airing some interesting ideas under the title "Design Fiction" (a Bruce Sterling coinage that t.s.f. readers may recall previously seeing here and here). In the past month this has included variant presentations at Design Engaged in Montreal, Shift08 in Lisbon, and most recently, Moving Movie Industry in Amsterdam -- the last of which I discovered via Sterling's twitter feed.

Bleecker's Design Fiction slideshow, from the Shift08 version of his presentation, appears below.

(Those interested may compare it to the earlier version given at Design Engaged.)

The general burden of his argument (quoting from the introduction -- see Slideshow Transcript, Slide 2) is that design can be considered or used

as a kind of story-telling practice, crafting material visions of different kinds of possible worlds and through those visions doing more than presenting an inert, lifeless object. Rather, design can turn ideas into material, but also insert that material into a larger setting with broader social contexts and consequences, and through that create a compelling story about a possible future. In this way, the design object becomes an important property of the world. And its [sic] this notion of a property in a larger narrative-based context that I will ultimately highlight in this talk. A prop, to borrow from film and theater production — that helps move a story forward.

In his presentation Bleecker references the work of David A. Kirby, a lecturer in Science Communication at the University of Manchester, who offers a very interesting way of framing the real-life usefulness of sci-fi movie props:

for Hollywood technical advisors cinematic depictions of future technologies are actually "diegetic prototypes" that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology's need, benevolence, and viability. I show how diegetic prototypes have a major rhetorical advantage over true prototypes: in the diegesis these technologies exist as "real" objects that function properly and which people actually use.

[From Kirby's forthcoming paper, "Screening Technology: Technical Advisors, Diegetic Prototypes, and the Cinematic Creation of the Future", quoted at Material Beliefs blog, 21 May 02007.]

The notion of diegetic (in-world) prototypes rhymes with much of the thinking at this blog around communicating alternative futures, and in particular the importance of diegetic integrity as expressed in our experiential scenario mantra, Don't break the universe.

I agree completely with Bleecker about the use of design "to create a compelling story about a possible future". Storytelling through concept design can be so effective that in fact to provide a literal narrative set in the future to go with it may actually be unnecessary, if the in-world design elements properly invite immersion in their own right. Such was the case with architect Bryan Boyer's provocative thesis project of redesigning the U.S. Capitol building.

"Design fiction" sits at the intersection of storytelling and design. From a design point of view, it makes sense to recruit storytelling techniques to render a design more compelling. But the relationship can work in the other direction; indeed the point of film props is that they help tell the story. It seems useful to admit that from a designer's point of view, design fiction is principally a way of extending engagement with a design problem space, while for a futurist, by contrast, the same tools are regarded as a means to a larger end; namely, to help people (usually their clients) explore the various "worlds" (or contexts) in which they may find themselves several years or decades, or longer, from today.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are in tension. Not long ago, I oversaw a project in which our team was producing future-images -- say, two to ten years out, for argument's sake -- for a client developing a prototype application (details of which we won't go into here). The agreement was that we would use visual "artifacts from the future" to suggest how the world could eventually look to a user blessed with the functioning app. We found that, having iterated on the design once or twice, and upon delivering a completed scenario-exploring image, the client would (as hoped and expected) identify a range of second- and third- order design issues that had not been on the table until the initial image became available to "think with". One curious finding was that to evoke the social and personal impacts of a relatively distant-future application, at a general level of abstraction helpful to investors and project managers for instance, tended to require a certain suspension of disbelief; the use of an evocative artistic licence at the expense of literal "accuracy". Subsequent iterations, which the client requested to address more of the concrete, granular design and engineering issues, became less clear and impactful; though they were more useful for the day-to-day project implementation level, they were also somewhat more prosaic in their details.

So, design fictions (or diegetic prototypes) intended to advance technical implementation and those oriented to advancing systemic or social understanding are not quite the same species. In the case described above, we found ourselves doing what designers usually do (assuming a range of continuities to enable and elaborate a single preferred scenario for the product), rather than what we as futurists were more accustomed to doing (systematically exploring possible discontinuities in order to produce a more robust strategic stance).

For a futurist, or at any rate for me and my colleagues, future artifacts themselves are like so many forward-facing MacGuffins, heuristic devices carefully crafted to help tell engaging stories. They enable and animate deeper exploration of the various relationships and values at stake in a particular future scenario, and (I argue with monotonous regularity, from various angles, in this space) their value for that purpose is multiplied many times over when artifacts "from" different future worlds can be devised and explicitly brought into conversation with one another (as in our postcards intervention, among others). This blog contains abundant testimony to the process of futurists discovering that this exploratory function (traditionally abstract -- verbal, textual, and statistical) can be carried out much more effectively when an immersive, experiential, radically multimedia approach is adopted.

From the design side, too, the same connection is being made. For instance, Adaptive Path's Peter Merholz recently described the gradual integration of futures thinking into their company practice. Last month we learned about experience designer Nathan Shedroff's take on futures thinking. Similarly, Bleecker's Near Future Laboratory colleague Nicolas Nova has spotted the connection between their work and that of FoundFutures, our series of multimedia public art interventions to make alternative futures experientially available to people in their everyday lives ("guerrilla futures").

Yet despite these promising signs of mutual discovery and learning, there remains something of a disconnect between design and futures discourse. In part this arises from the fallacy of monofuturism (held not only by many designers, but plenty of others also, including some self-described futurists). I am referring to the fundamental yet distressingly widespread misconception that engaging the yet-to-be means trying to predict "the future" rather than exploring alternative futures. (See for example the slideshow from Nova's recent Design Engaged presentation; "inflated deflated future(s), or... why futurists fail to predict futures".†) To use Bleecker's imagery, it's my observation that almost all design tacitly assumes a single, linear future, and evinces nothing remotely like the complexity of Latour's manifold conception of imagined futures. (Gibson's "unevenly distributed" aphorism is often misused as a stand-in for a more multi-dimensional theory of how change happens -- i.e., the future is X, but not everyone catches on at the same time -- a mere variation on the monofuturist's theme).

To bridge this gap, as I picture it, would probably involve designers mastering the foundations of futures studies,∞ and collaborating with futurists in experientially manifesting genuinely diverging future scenarios, on an ongoing basis, both for instrumental design-improving purposes and for broader world-exploring ones. Futurists ought to learn as much as they can about design, too -- but let me be clear. Good storytelling is a necessary precondition for good design: with or without the involvement of designated "futurists", the rigorous elaboration of alternative futures is the sine qua non of meaningful choice.

As we've seen above, "design fiction" sits at the intersection of storytelling and design. Turning this theory object over in our contemplation, we see that not only can storytelling help designers (as suggested by the design fiction story in Sterling's 02006 collection, Visionary in Residence), but also, flipping it around, that design can be deployed in the service of stories addressing bigger topics, such as future scenarios for our industries, communities, cultures, and planet.

The values-laden, story-driven, aspirational design and pursuit of alternative futures among which we may choose more wisely is among the most urgent challenges we collectively face.

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
> The MacGuffin Library
> Future-jamming 101
> Architectural time travel
> Findability features FoundFutures

† Nicolas Nova presentation via Overmorgen.
∞ If the existence of a field of study called futures is news to you, dear reader, then futurist and political science Prof Jim Dator's article "The future lies behind! Thirty years of teaching futures studies" may be a useful starting point.

1 comment:

David said...

Perhaps would be a great tool in correlation with concept design. We're fun, powerful yet simple digital storytelling platform. Be sure to give it a try.