May 26, 2009
Design, Science, Fiction

I enjoyed the ideas in this essay(PDF at end of link) by Julian Bleecker, but not so much the actual language (sorry, Julian) which seems to me to take up a lot more space than the idea really requires. Maybe it's just me, who have gotten the tweets and can no longer hold my sentences, but I experience the same feeling when reading Paul Dourish or Adam Greenfield. The rhetoric of design writing seems verbose, and willfully so, to me.

So, the idea in a gist: It's about how the design process, the science that informs it, and the world building of science fiction interact, specifically how science and science fiction "change place" when science fiction actually informs actual technology, whereas the science is used to inform the fiction. Matt Webb occasionally talks on similar themes.

The point of science fiction in the design process is that a lot of science fiction world building works by setting up a technological universe with new interesting objects, and then looking at not just the applications of these objects (this is Star Trek science fiction: Objects are just prop devices to propel characters beyond certain obstacles) to the implications of the objects (e.g. Brave New World - where essentially all of the novel is about accidental consequences of the societal shift of the technology, and not the intended use of the technology itself)

The value of this kind of science fiction is that it moves the design process beyond the mechanics of what the invention does to what it does to the world around it. Which of course is how (and why) you're supposed to be designing in the first place.

The crowning example in the essay is that of Minority Report, the movie. The pre-production process for the film consisted of world building, based on some scientific imagining of what might be future technologies. The universe is then imagined with these technologies in it, but - importantly - the technology in the movie is largely just there, it just happens to exist around the characters as the terms under which they exist. It's not really the point of their moving about. This lived-in feel of the imagination is exactly what's at play and what is useful.

The example is interesting here, because the famous media display Tom Cruise uses for his work in the movie, is now actually beginning to come about in the media labs around the world, and invariably, the fiction of Minority Report informs the design process and the conversation about it after the fact.

So - the design, the stories, and the science (what is science? Know how and observation) combine in unexpected ways in the technology field.

So much for what I got from Bleecker's text*. Is this a new feedback loop? I don't really think so. I think the notion that science is free of fiction is a fiction itself, invented during the industrial era. The roots of science most certainly is metaphysical storytelling - but enhanced with a discipline of observation. And not to destroy Bleeckers example, but I can't help feeling that the "lived-in" feel of the Minority Report visualization system comes from the striking similarity it has to the fictionalized description of the Memex Vannevar Bush gave in As We May Think back in 1945. It's still a valid point that the language of design now becomes that of the fiction from the Spielberg movie - but maybe we're more looking at sediments of earlier science, than fiction as scientific instrument.

Before I end, a couple of very nice links to near-now science fiction imagining. First, "what if the imperial fleet from Star Wars was real" in Death Star over San Fransisco which elegantly does the "technology as a condition" exercise by just dropping the fleet in as backdrop and occasional point of attention.
Secondly, a well put together medical nightmare on the topic of artificial bone implants.

* Which could all be wrong, considering opening remarks on verbosity. I could have missed the point in there somewhere.

Posted by Claus at May 26, 2009 10:06 AM | TrackBack (0)
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