Tag Archives: counterfactuals

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.