Three Good Examples of Design Fiction

My last post, “On Glass & Mud: A Critique of (Bad) Corporate Design Fiction“, generated a lot of discussion about commercial design futures. Mick Costigan suggested that I was being too “high-horse” in my criticism.  He (and several others) suggested that we should focus on the positive aspects of doing futures work in a constrained organizational setting.

Several people also asked me for good examples of futures videos done right (that aren’t about mud). You should check out the comments in “On Glass & Mud” for a deeper  discussion of ethics and responsibility in design futures.

In the mean time, here are three examples of what I think are excellent examples of design futures.

Children of Men

One of the best examples of design fiction that I have ever seen is “Children of Men“. As a feature-length film, it does more to represent the fine textures of everyday life in a well-researched future better than almost any other project (even if you don’t agree with the world it paints).

Check out Slavoj Zizek’s praise for the movie on YouTube (embed disabled for some annoying reason), in which he draws the crucial distinction between the foreground of the story and the background of the meaning.  This is an important theme which differentiates overly narrow, autistic design fiction from rich, well-texture design fiction which does not ignore the material realities of change.

Song of the Machine

Outside of the feature film category, Superflux Studio’s “Song of the Machine”, winner of the Postscapes 2011 Prize for the Best Design Fiction, is an excellent example of how short videos about the future should be done.

I love “Song of the Machine” because it is grounded in serious research (optogenetics and augmented reality), but doesn’t make too big a big deal out of it. Instead, it focuses on the emotional, social and human aspects of how such technology might integrate with real life. The actor, Justin Pickard, still lives in a regular flat, the weather in London is still awful, and he still takes the Tube to work. Yes, you have AR overlays in the city-scape around you, but they aren’t so in your face as to or world-shaping as to be incredulous. And everyone is not rich, white, and perfectly psychologically balanced, either.

“Song of the Machine” does what any good futures project should do; it draws you in, challenges you, teaches you something new and leaves you looking at the world in a slightly different, hopefully better, way. Will AR-enabled optogenetics change the world? No, probably not for most of us. But they could allow a certain segment of society (the blind) to participate in regular, everyday life in a way that they currently can’t.  And this video is pitch-perfect representation of how that might work and what life might be like as a result.

Fly Me to the Moon

Another excellent example is Heather Schlegel’s, “Fly Me to the Moon”.  This short video was developed on the back of a serious futures project for the financial transaction company, SWIFT (and was a finalist for the “Most Important Futures Work” by the Association of Professional Futurists).  It explores a future for electronic payment, but it is so much more than just that.  It also explores issues of trust, identity, ease, convenience and technology, embedded in a real world of characters, emotion and social meaning.

Four friends sit around a restaurant table, chatting about old stories.  One, a pilot (for commercial space tourism, it is revealed) discusses how fun it is flying into space.  They have this discussion with the same kind of casual amazement that we would discuss a friend’s experience backstage at a concert for their favorite band.  It is amazing, but not earth shattering.  Why?  Because like all things, it has already become part of the fabric of everyday life.

When the time comes to split the bill (a common, everyday activity), their banter reveals different perspectives about the cashless economy. One expresses concern over whether or not his data is really anonymous.  Another dismisses his concerns as trivial.  A third uses a key fob to pay the tip in the equivalent of frequent flyer miles.

All of this is subtle, nuanced and evocative, but also well researched and rich.  It is also packed with strategic insight into consumer behavior.  It works both as an excellent piece of futures research, and as an engaging piece of media and entertainment. And it does this with practically no special effects or high technology what-so-ever.

Towards Better Design Fiction

All of these examples are both measured and moving in equal parts.  One is from the world of entertainment, another from academia and serious research, and the last from commercial foresight and corporate communications.  And yet they they all have meaning and breadth far beyond their topic.  Like Zizek said of Children of Men, their power is in their background detail. They address, even if just in passing, a wide range of other issues that reflect a rich investment in thinking about how the complex, messy future might be.

If these videos were selling a product, I’d buy it. If they were asking me to participate in a project, I’d participate. If they were highlighting a brand, I’d like it even more. If Corning has Asperger’s Syndrome, than designer futurists like Superflux and Heather Schlegel are the emotional geniuses on the block. Their videos appeal directly to the viewer in a clear, authentic way. You feel connected to the characters and their issues, and by implication, to the subject of the video and its sponsors.

The more design fiction can engage a broad, robust set of trends and emotions, the more effective it well be; whether corporate or otherwise. So stay positive and lets aim for more examples like these. “Thick” futures, ethical honesty and wonderful visual design.  It couldn’t get any better than this.

7 Comments

  1. Posted February 6, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Wow… Thanks for the post, Noah! Eye-opening and thought provoking, to say the least…

    I think the qualities you describe were exactly what drew me in William Gibson’s early fiction, back then (I guess you will agree that Gibson’s early fiction was exactly like that, texture-rich, full of everyday details, with, in Bruce Sterling’s words, “their brilliant, self-consistent evocation of a credible future”). Gibson, himself, in a recent interview in Paris Review, describes the stakes:

    “I wanted the reader to feel con­stantly somewhat disoriented and in a foreign place, because I assumed that to be the highest pleasure in reading stories set in imaginary futures. But I’d also read novels where the future-weirdness quotient overwhelmed me and ­simply became boring, so I tried to make sure my early fiction worked as relatively solid genre pieces. Which I still believe is harder to do. When I started Neuromancer, for instance, I wanted to have an absolutely familiar, utterly well-worn armature of pulp plot running throughout the whole thing. It’s the caper plot that carries the reader through.”

    And later on, commenting on “cyberspace”:

    “It wasn’t merely unfamiliar. It was something no one had experienced yet. I wanted the reader’s experience to be psychedelic, hyperintense. But I also knew that a more rigorous and colder and truer extrapolation would be to simply present it as something the character scarcely even notices.

    […]

    Of course, for the characters themselves, cyberspace is nothing special—they use it for everything. But you don’t hear them say, Well, I’ve got to go into cyberspace to speak to my mother, or I’ve got to go to cyberspace to get the blueberry-pie recipe. ”

    I guess that this, gentle and non-obtrusive evocation of the future, is what makes your three examples excellent ones indeed…

  2. Noah Raford
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks Desertnaut. I agree. I don’t think it is an accident that Gibson’s “future realism”, Sterling’s “design futures” and the kind of “thick futures” I am advocating come together in a similar place (although clearly, they’re far more masterful than I). Sterling and Gibson’s concept of “atemporality” captures this well.

    It reminds me of the classic futurist mantra (attributed to Stewart Brand); “making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.” Stuart Candy has a great discussion of this in his essay, “Amazing = Mundane“. He writes:

    So, rather than plundering the landscape of possible futures for their potential to startle, this line of thinking suggests that it may be truer to our subject matter if we try to convey the ordinary, quotidian quality of varied ways of being in the future (for which purpose, the already staggering variety of the past and present set a fine precedent: there are a million different ways to be bored). But there’s a real art to this. Making the extraordinary seem ordinary is an uncommon feat.

    He goes on to suggest that, “the most successful science fiction films, in a narrative or artistic sense, tend to suffuse whatever novelties they introduce with a lived-in quality that lends the texture of truth.”

    He even quotes Cuarón, too!

    The first work to spring to my mind in this category is Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Children of Men, about which this writer has said: ‘The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail — just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper — that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.’

    Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Noah Raford
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    PS – Jamais Cascio has a great piece on this as well, called “Fifteen Minutes Into the Future“.

    “One of the hardest things to grapple with as a futurist is the sheer banality of tomorrow. We live our lives, dealing with everyday issues and minor problems. Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum. Even when big events happen, even in the worst of moments, we cope, and adapt. This is, in many ways, a quiet strength of the human mind, and a reason for hope when facing the dismal prospects ahead of us.”

    Awesome.

  4. Posted February 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the links Noah – awesome indeed…

    I think Cascio’s piece has much to do (albeit in a different context) with what Jared Diamond calls “creeping normalcy” (Collapse, Ch. 14):

    “Politicians use the term “creeping normalcy” to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it’s difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one’s baseline standard for what constitutes “normalcy” shifts gradually and imperceptibly.”

    I also deeply enjoyed the futuryst link to Douglas Adams piece, “[around 1997] I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve”, several years before Philip Tetlock publishing his groundbreaking work on experts’ judgement… :-)

    I sat down yesterday and watched the Children of Men. Well-invested time, indeed…

    Many thanks also for your agent-based simulation of Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory – impressive! I tweeted it to Tim Harford (he draws heavily upon Perrow in his last book, Adapt). He replied back that he was not aware of it…

  5. Mick Costigan
    Posted February 11, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Future made of mud artifact!

    http://a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/s720x720/426064_348155065205700_100000336272866_1131740_463059792_n.jpg

  6. Jakob Bak
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Neil Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg strikes me as pretty good example of design fiction as well.

  7. Posted February 29, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    hi Noah,

    really enjoyed reading your blog.

    btw… I believe the maxim ‘making the strange familiar and the familiar strange’ was not Brand’s but dates back to W J J Gordon’s work on ‘SYNECTICS, The Development of Creative Capacity’ (1960). Gordon’s work preempts much of the current discourse on ‘sensemaking’.

    keep up the great work – Mitch

2 Trackbacks

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