Category Archives: Science Fiction

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contract/bridge: Auger (2013), Speculative design: crafting the speculation

  • Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11-35.

This justly well-cited paper is in some respects a tour through the work of Auger and others (mostly RCA-aligned, I think?) in the decade prior to its publication in 2013. My purpose in writing it up is to extract and summarise the methodological concept at its heart, which has utility in other forms of speculative work that have mutated from these design-specific practices, including recent work by my colleagues and myself here at Lund. As such, I’ll for the most part be skimming over the actual examples presented in this paper, but it’s really worth your time to read the whole thing if you want to get a good eye on where speculative design / design fiction was at before it properly metastasized throughout the late Teens.

Core claims and definitions

Auger’s main claim here is effectively teleological (though not in the Hegelian sense of that term):

Speculative design serves two distinct purposes: first, to enable us to think about the future; second, to critique current practice.

p11

(I think the “us” being used in the first purpose is what I think of as the “social first-person plural”, which is to say it extends beyond the narrower “practitioner-us” which is implicit in the second purpose—not that it makes much difference to this analysis, mind you! I’m just interested in the narratology of academic writing.)

The paper’s “key concept is the ‘perceptual bridge’—the means by which designs engage their audience” (p11), and it’s these mechanics of engagement which I want to extract and summarise in order to deploy the concept outside of the design domain; I also see a bunch of crossover with the implicit bargain or contract of suspension-of-disbelief inherent to speculative literature.

Auger begins by listing the many practices—already proliferating and contested, back in 2013!—overlapping with the one he sees as his own, namely speculative design. What they all share is a strategy of “remov[ing] the constraints of the commercial sector that define normative design processes; use [of] models and prototypes at the heart of the enquiry; and [using] fiction to present alternative products, systems or worlds” (p11). Auger chose speculative design [SD hereafter] over e.g. ‘design fiction’ due to concerns about the latter’s foregrounding of the fictive nature of the work in a manner which might undermine its intended effects: “the choice of ‘speculative’ is preferable as it suggests a direct correlation between ‘here and now’ and existence of the design concept” (p12), thus advancing Augers project “to shift the discussion on technology beyond the fields of experts to a broad popular audience” (ibid).

However, Auger acknowledges that the term is not without “etymological baggage”; the first example he provides is that of “a strong leaning toward conjecture”, as manifest in the OMG JETPACKS!!!1 genre of future-vision, which end up “playing to spectacle and technocentric dreams” rather than producing more grounded extrapolations (p12); avoiding these excesses makes it “possible to to craft the speculation into something more poignant […] tailored to the complex and subtle requirements of an identified audience” (ibid, emphases added).

Auger continues, defining the second bit of baggage in the negative: “[SD] is not only to encourage contemplation on the technological future, but can also provide a system for analysing, critiquing and re-thinking contemporary technology”; as such, the imagining of “near-future products and services” can “act as a form of cultural litmus paper” for sandboxing potential business propositions (p12). In addition, however—and of more interest to non-designers, perhaps—“alternate presents are design proposals that utilise contemporary technology but apply different ideologies or configurations to those currently directing product development” (ibid); this is related to alternate historical literature and the counterfactual, “but rather than focussing on asking ‘what if’ of historical events and imagining the effect on the here and now, it shifts the emphasis onto artefacts” (ibid; cf. that old Bruce Sterling riff about how design fiction “tells worlds rather than stories”.)

A methodology of speculative design

The rest of the paper is a sort of exploartory taxonomy of methodological strategies in SD, which Auger overviews with the governing principle of careful constraint of the speculation:

… if it strays too far into the future to present implausible concepts or alien technological habitats, the audience will not relate to the proposal, resulting in a lack of engagement or connection. In effect, a design speculation requires a bridge to exist between the audience’s perception of their world and the fictional element of the concept.

p12; emphasis added

Six such “bridging techniques” are explored; I’ve (Roman) numbered them for my convenience, and provided my own one-word labels (in parenthesis) to supplement Auger’s originals (in double-quotes), again for my own convenience in subsequent (re)use.

I—“the ecological approach” (Adaptation)

The designer must consider the environment and context in which speculative future products or services would exist; this could be a specific space such as the home or the office or a cultural or political situation based on current developments or trends.

p13

Auger uses the novel The War of the Worlds and the 2005 Spielberg movie thereof to discuss which presentation of the Martians seems “most likely”, concluding that Wells’s original depiction of them suffering from maladaption to the Earth’s environment is the more grounded speculation; he also discusses some classic Dunne & Raby works.

The concept of adaptation here informs the design process, delivering objects that display an existential logic (or not, in Wells’s case) in their intended environment. Any experience that challenges a preconception will at first appear odd, but here the detail and the finish of the [Dunne & Raby] artefacts, combined with the short explanations describing their functions and modes of interaction, entices the audience into exploring the concept further […] we could imagine living with these robots due to their compatibility with the domestic habitat.

p14

II—“the uncanny” (Provocation)

If a design proposal is too familiar it is easily assimilated into the normative progression of products and would pass unnoticed. However, proposals dealing with sensitive subjects such as sex or death can quite easily stray too far into provocative territory, resulting in revulsion or outright shock.

p14

Auger here mobilises the Freudian uncanny, the “paradoxical reaction humans have that invoke[s] a sense of familiarity whilst at the same time being foreign” (p14), and connects this to the social-psychology concept of cognitive dissonance; I would extend that connection to Suvin’s classic description of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement.

Provocation is a tricky strategy to get right, however, as it is a direct tap on the emotions: horror books and movies can crank up the dial “to elicit maximum psychological effect; however, for a speculative design project a more careful approach is required.” (p15) Examples are provided.

III—“verisimilitude” (Deception/Hoaxiness)

… the term speculation can take the viewer too far away from the here and now, making the proposed design concept seem unreal or far-fetched. The problem lies in the range of possibility for a fiction—from simply impossible to bordering on reality.

[…]

But in the domains where [design] fictions ply their wares and meet their audiences, it is preferable for the concept to pass as real, described better perhaps as design factions; a form of verisimilitude where truths are blurred and disbelief is suspended.

p19-20; emphases in original

Here Auger mentions the Orson Welles radio play of The war of the Worlds, which adjusted the story to better fit with the cultural context of the time, to (famously, if somewhat overstated and in itself fictional) spectacular effect: “taking advantage of contemporary media, familiar settings and complex human desires or fears” (p20). Auger then compares SD to the usual delivery systems of science fictional material, whereby the contract with the audience is deliberately (if only implicitly) entered into.

Speculative designs, however, are played out in real life. the presence of the designed artefact in popular culture allows for the viewer to project its presence into his or her own life. Then they effectively become the protagonist in the story, playing out individual and informative roles. Their reactions become the true products of this form of design research.

p20; emphasis added

This section ends with an extended discussion of the highly-successful pioneering SD project, the Audio Tooth, which—despite being entirely speculative—blazed a trail through print and digital media reports in 2001 and 2002. This was achieved in part through the adoption of familiar product design and marketing language in the presentation materials: the narrative compensated for its implausibility my dressing itself up as plausibly as possible in every other regard. But Auger does not the hazards of the successfully hoaxy design: “A possible problem with this approach is that it allows for little control once a project is in the public domain and concepts can quickly mutate as facts become embellished.” (p21)

IV—“observational comedy” (Familiarity)

Auger here notes the stand-up comedy strategy of starting from a recognisable and relateable scenario (e.g. the grotty back seat of a family car)and building upon it to enable the introduction of an idea which would be preposterous if introduced immediately (e.g. seagulls following the car as it passes a landfill site).

By utilising the mundane, the familiar and the small, unnoticed details the designer can provide spectacular, even preposterous proposals with a tangible link to our contemporary sensibilities and understanding. It roots them in known contexts, limiting the need for complex explanations. The spectacular narratives that stem from the comedian’s effectively represent the designer’s technological future, made palatable through familiar elements.

p24

A related technique is to rely upon “stereotypical or commonly-held assumptions about a specific subject” to effectively skip over the need to explain the complex technological aspects, but this obviously requires a knowledge of the target audience and its understanding of the field in which the intervention is being made. (p26)

V—“alternate presents” (Alterity/Historicity)

Alternative presents are intended to question and critique contemporary use of technology in domestic and everyday habitats, so some conflict is helpful for attracting attention. However, for the proposal to have a less visceral impact, it is necessary for the audience to see beyond its conceptual oddness and understand the logic behind it.

p27

This can be achieved by leveraging a suitably poignant counterfactual history as a frame for the intervention:

… by choosing a topical and well-understood issue or theme in contemporary everyday life and finding a relevant or connected historical moment that could have a perceptible connection, the designer can develop a series of imaginary outcomes that instigate reflection on our current situation.

p28

The key here is the careful and considered selection of what sf theorists sometimes refer to as the “jonbar hinge“. While the themes of the counterfactual may be very broad, the successful engagement of such concepts lies in the fine details thereof (p29). The background, in other words, should be implied by the foreground as much as possible; this is a bit like the well-used (and not always useful) creative writing dictum “show, don’t tell”.

VI—“domestication”

The final strategy is based on the practice of selective breeding in horticulture and animal husbandry: forced evolution, in other words. It’s quite a specific technique, limited as it is to a narrow range of possible (organic) subjects, and it’s skipped over rather quickly here at the end of the paper (perhaps due to space restraints).

Conclusion

Auger’s project has been to explore, through these techniques and examples, “a more general attitude or approach towards the subject of speculation, specifically, how it must be managed and crafted to conect to a specific audience’s perception of the temporal world around them. Once established these perceptions can be stretched or manipulated in precise and informed ways.” (p31-2) The point about knowing the audience is particularly relevant, I think, and connects back to the hazards or the hoax gone rogue; speculative designs and other such fictions can escape their intended context quite easily, particularly if they’re made very well. This might be something to consider taking advantage of, though it comes with the hazard of blowback (and of a phenomenon of worldbuilding that I was discussing with Jay Springett earlier today, and I want to name here now in order to lay claim to it: “dark forks”).

Auger ends with a point about the (am)bivalence of the method which I think worth quoting in full:

[Speculative designs] can inspire an audience to think not only about what they do want for their future selves but also what they do not want.

p32

Amen to that. A good chewy paper, if a little hurried toward the end. Canonical, and well worth your time.

being quite serious, the future may be boring

Offered without comment, but with the contextualising note that the interview took place in 1984, some thoughts from J G Ballard on what we might now identify as the formation of European post-Fordist neoliberalism:

The young people of Western Europe since the sixties have grown up in a remarkably uniform environment, both in terms of the postwar architecture of high-rises and motorways and shopping malls, and also in terms of fashion in clothes and pop music, beach holidays in Spain and Greece, and their attitudes to society as a whole and their place in it—to the place of Europe between the two superpowers (both of whom, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., are tolerated but not trusted). I think for the first time in Western Europe, one sees a generation which finds itself living in sane, just, and largely humane societies—the welfare-state social democracies west of the Iron Curtain—and is deeply suspicious of them, while in fact sharing all the values for which those societies stand. Young people who take for granted that the state will provide free university education, free medical treatment, and prosperous consumer-goods economies, but who nonetheless seem to suspect that behind all this lies some unseen conspiracy. One sees the most extreme example in the Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany, whose terrorist acts seem totally meaningless and irrational. But, of course, that is the very point of those acts—in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom. I think a lot of my own fiction—Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High-Rise, for example—taps these feelings of paranoia and desperation. As well, there are all the enormous institutionalized divisions between the social classes, between the meritocratic elites and those on the dole who will never work again, between those making their way into the Silicon Valleys of the future and those left behind in the dead end of the twentieth century. A lot of the youngsters who come to see me and talk about Atrocity Exhibition see it as a political work. To them, the voracious media landscape I describe is a machine for political exploitation.

[…]

The sixties were a time of endlessly multiplying possibilities, of real selflessness in many ways, a huge network of connections between Vietnam and the space race, psychedelia and pop music, linked together in every conceivable way by the media landscape. We were all living inside an enormous novel, an electronic novel, governed by instantaneity. In many ways, time didn’t exist in the sixties, just a set of endlessly proliferating presents. Time returned in the seventies, but not a sense of the future. The hands of the clock now go nowhere. Still, I’ve hated nostalgia, and it may be that a similar hot mix will occur again. On the other hand, being quite serious, the future may be boring. It’s possible that my children and yours will live in an eventless world, and that the faculty of imagination will die, or express itself solely in the realm of psychopathology. In Atrocity Exhibition I make the point that perhaps psychopathology should be kept alive as a repository, probably the last repository, of the imagination.

partially-automated bi-utopian communism

I’ve been quietly impressed by the ubiquity of Aaron Benanav across a variety of venues as he promotes his recently-published book Automation and the Future of Work, of which I received a copy a while back. Benanav’s been a guest on blogs and podcasts aplenty, and I’m glad to have read and listened to some of them, despite not yet having gotten round to the book itself. I suppose it’s a mark of a successful promotion drive that these encounters have encouraged me to bump the book higher in my TBR queue—though that of course assumes that the message of the book itself is of interest.

Which it very definitely is. His main point, which is made all the more persuasively (for me, at least) for its lack of spectacle and hyperbole, is that the very commonplace thesis that “robots are coming for our jobs!” is wrong. Benanav’s refutation starts from the erroneous use of unemployment rates as a proxy indicator for lack of labour demand; the latter is very real, he argues, but the former misframes the issue in a way that leads to mistaken conclusions, via a focus on the technoutopian spectacle of OMG ROBOTS. The actual situation, he says, is “that 45 years of economic stagnation and welfare state retrenchment, rather than workplace automation, are the forces making for a severe global jobs problem. It is a problem that long predates recent high tech innovations.” But there’s an interesting bit of intellectual judo, here, in that Benanav then goes on to say that we can achieve something like the fully-automated-luxury utopia promised by the automation evangelists without the need for the automation: instead, we reorganise and redistribute the work that still needs doing.

What I didn’t expect—but maybe should have?—was that Benanav draws a fair bit on utopian theory (an interest rooted in a life-long interest in science fiction). He talks about two models for workers’ emancipation, the first being the old autonomy/worker-controlled-workplace vision, and the second being the perhaps more modern (and more utopian?) vision of being free of work in the sense of being able to quit and do something else “beyond work”. The former is more appealing to those of us who do what we might call non-bullshit jobs, who value what we do, but wish we were able to do it for a reasonable number of hours a week, without being steered by MBAs who don’t understand the work they’re trying to manage; the latter is more appealing to someone loading the dishwasher at Wetherspoons, or pushing pedals for thin tips on Deliveroo. Benanav’s point is that a successful vision of a reconfigured society needs to accommodate both of these utopian urges:

People within emancipatory politics are going to have to think about these two visions of emancipation and the way that they relate to work and the possibilities within them. The inspiring vision of the future will likely be one that speaks to both experiences: on the one hand, transforming meaningful work to be done better—with greater worker (and consumer) control—and, on the other hand, working less. There is a connection, although not a direct one, between these different concrete experiences of work and the sorts of places people find it easier or more meaningful to engage in struggle and conflict. My sense is that engaging with utopian literature, even the misguided techno-utopianism of the automation literature, is worthwhile as a way to build a stronger emancipatory movement.

Further on in this interview, he hints that this distinction is mirrored in a comparison of Morris’s News from Nowhere and Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread: in the former, work becomes the true fulfillment of life, while in the latter, the lack of work provides the space for fulfillment to be found (or created).

So, yeah: while I can’t yet recommend the book on the basis of direct experience, I’m pretty sure that I will be able to do so once I get round to reading it. In the meantime, maybe take the opportunity to listen to the man make his own arguments? This episode of New Left Radio is ideal:

whole sets of social and experiential differences

Chip Delany, in just two paragraphs, nails to the wall the very best and worst aspects of science fiction:

You can put together more interesting combinations of words in science fiction than you can in any other kind of writing—and they actually mean something. You can say things like, “The door dilated” (as Heinlein did in Beyond This Horizon), and it implies both design and technology, as well as whole sets of social and experiential differences. When you say things like, “Her world exploded,” you are not just giving a muzzy metaphor for a female character’s mental state. You reserve the margin for the words to mean that a planet belonging to a woman blew up. Thus SF is sensually pleasing to work with, simply at the level of language. 

I think what happens with mundane or naturalist fiction is that these characters succeed or fail in what they try to do, but they succeed or fail against the background of the real world so that their successes are always some form of adjusting to the real world. Their failures are always a matter of being defeated by the real world. So in a funny way the only thing that mundane fiction can talk about is either madness or slavery—those people who adjust to the world and therefore are slaves to it, or those people who are defeated by the world and are therefore mad because they shouldn’t have tried in the first place. But I do think there’s something else: in science fiction, because success or failure is measured against a fictive world that is itself in dialogue with the real or given world, that dialogue is much more complicated, richer, than in realist fiction. Of course, we all know that there are many things about science fiction that are predictable. One of the problems—now that I’ve given this account of SF’s potential—is that, for a long time, SF was a kind of marginal writing, with many hard and fast conventions. You can do absolutely anything in it. But when you can do absolutely anything, you tend to fall back on the conventions.

the ubiquitous fictionality of narratives of futurity

Doing that thing where one quotes a famous and respected person saying things one has been saying for years, in the hope that it’ll be more palatable coming from someone famous and respectable. Once again, it’s yer man KSR, of course:

All attempts to speak of the future are science fiction stories, and thus bound to be wrong. The polling done for the recent election, which turned out once again to be notoriously wrong — that seems weak and unprofessional until you consider that in evaluating the present to suggest what will happen in the future, polls too are science fiction stories, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they get it wrong. The future just can’t be predicted. Anyone who says they can do that is operating some kind of scam, even if they believe it themselves. In finance, for instance, you have futures markets; these and many other financial instruments gamble on predictions, and of course try to hedge their bets, being so uncertain. Once you have to put your money where your science fiction story is, the uncertainty gets very obvious.

I made this claim in one of my earliest papers (co-written with Shrin Elahi), and I still get push-back on its supposed universalism now; most people seem willing to accept that some narratives of futurity are fundamentally fictional, but anything that retains a sheen of quantitative science and/or technological magic—finance being a prime example—has a rhetorical tenacity which is incredibly hard to shake off.

But the advantage of having had the claim accepted for publication (though not without some classic “Reviewer B” vitriol, mind you) is that I’ve been able to refer back to it for re-use in subsequent work. If you’d like to do the same, you’d be very welcome! And if you want a gloss on this particular claim from the author themselves, allow me to state it as succinctly as possible: any description of a chain of events whose timeline extends into time which we have yet to encounter—regardless of medium, authorship, political intentionality or moral position—is a fiction, and can be critiqued and analysed as such.

(Ironically, that paper picks up a fairly regular stream of citations, but rarely for this particular claim, and quite frequently for claims upon which it has no bearing at all. Academia, amirite?)