Tag Archives: design fiction

dead media beat

Thanks to Jay Springett and Uncle Warren for alerting me to the sunsetting of Bruce Sterling’s old Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired, which I only stopped following because Wired yanked the RSS on it some time ago—this despite its being perhaps the most influential thing they ever published, or ever will publish. Jay’s accompanying note said “end of an era”, and I appreciate the sentiment, though it’s not quite true: that era ended a long time ago (probably before the RSS feed for BtB was killed off, in truth).

But it’s certainly a marker in time for those of us of a certain generation. BtB had not been running for long before I first elbowed my way onto the waggon-trails of blogging, and was certainly one of my first regular follows; at that time I knew Sterling only as some guy who’d co-written a book with William Gibson that I’d never gotten round to reading, and I followed BtB more due to the lingering influence of Wired, which I’d been picking up in dead-tree format on and off since 1990, having been hipped to the existence of this utopian thing called “the internet” while still a callow public schoolboy by, of all the possible vectors of that infection, the band Jesus Jones.

(“Info-freako / there is no limit to what I want to know…” Y’know, I’ve only just realised how much that song now seems terrifyingly prophetic of socnet doomscrolling. But man, Jesus Jones. Heck of a thing to list as fundamentally formative of your life, but there it is.)

Anyway, as an unrepentant fan of Sterling, and as someone who is on the hook to write a chapter about the Chairman for an academic book later in the year, and also as someone who still keeps a blog in the full understanding that it’s an online journal in which I think out loud about stuff for my own satisfaction, please enjoy this recursively self-referential selection of snips from Sterling’s BtB swansong, interleavened with navel-gazing retro-reflections of my own. You’re welcome.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

That resonates a lot—though I should be honest enough to admit that my own blogging was at that point an exercise of almost pure self-aggrandizement, and attempt to push myself into the world of words that came with a byline and (so I hoped) a paycheque. As I’ve remarked before, with no small amount of rue (and a degree of guilt), it was that very landrush, by myself and many others, that not only toxified the landscape of blogging beyond any hope of remediation, but which also did so much to drive down the cost of hiring a writer, as we all squabbled over gigs for the bargain price of “exposure”. And I, to be clear, have ended up being one of the lucky ones: I exposed myself enough (and gained enough facility with writing and thinking in public) that I could trade it up and turn it into a ticket into academia.

(Though that was perhaps something of a frypan->fire move; not like things are particularly stable here in the groves, either. But you’d better believe I recognise the significant chunk of luck that I stirred in to alchemise that decade of hustle; while others came out of the blogging landrush far better than I, many came out far worse. And many more never even knew it was happening. It was easy to assume that the blogosphere was coterminous with the world—a foretaste, perhaps, of the walled-in-town-square weltanschauung of the socnets.)

Sterling makes a point further down about how the writing or talking that people will pay you for and the writing or talking that actually goes out into the world and makes a mark rarely overlap significantly, and also notes that both the now-defunct blog and Cheap Truth, both of whose readership was probably far smaller than his book sales, have been far more impactful on those smaller audiences than the books were on theirs. The moral I take away from that observation is that it’s wise to do what interests you, even if there’s no pay in it, even if it eats up the spare time you have around the stuff that actually pays the bills, because it’s the fascination you find in those things that really turns people on—fewer people, turned on more intensely, seems to be what really makes a lasting mark in the long run.

(Perhaps I’m just seeking a retrospective justification for my enduring instinct for taking on tasks that don’t really align as closely with the trajectory of my day-job as they should do… but that is also an instinct that I developed by blogging, and it has served me well so far. For example, one of the papers I wrote during my doctoral studies, and almost entirely unrelated to my thesis in any obvious or substantive way, has already been cited by far more people than will ever read my thesis, and was instrumental in getting me where I am today. It’s also, perhaps not at all coincidentally, a far less compromised piece of work, to which I point people regularly, and with pride; by contrast, when people ask about my thesis, I tend to do pretty much everything short of demanding that they don’t read it.)

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

Part of the glory of this swansong piece is that, as Sterling notes, it’s not at all like the material he used to blog. It’s more like a coda to the long succession of speaking gigs he’s done over the years, particularly the SXSW ones: full of sarcasm, sincere musings, shameless self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation sat side-by-side without any sense of contradiction or self-doubt. I’ve been saying for a long time now that I don’t have heroes any more, having learned that a hero is a bit like Chekov’s gun: to put someone on a pedestal is to assure that the time will come when they tumble off it. But I nonetheless remain hugely inspired by Sterling’s confidence in his own instincts, his restless gadfly nomadism; his life’s work seems to be one long Deleuzian line-of-flight in which security was long ago traded for the freedom to follow the thoughts and ideas and opportunities wherever they lead. And he knows it, too, even if he likely wouldn’t put it in those terms:

Even if I couldn’t package the things I knew in any way that any publisher would ever find viable, I simply knew things most people didn’t know. That feat was good in itself. “Real artists ship,” and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service.

[…]

I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that “blogs,” the “internet,” desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing phenomena. They were indeed period artifacts, some with the lifespan of hamsters. The content of my blog “rotted” quickly too, since most things I talked about, or linked to, are long gone.

I always understood that, but I hopped right into the ditch anyhow. I appreciated, and I even savored, the risks; I knew that, for a guy who theoretically was a professional novelist, I was spreading myself thin, acting the dilettante, and commonly sticking my nose into scenes and situations that were none of my business. Often, I had little to offer, too, other than some quip and a link. But that was my good fortune; I chose the bohemian downsides, the life of archaic niches and avant-garde clutter; I preferred the dead factory and the palace attic. They were kind to me, for that was my milieu.

There is something of Kafka’s hunger artist to Sterling, too, with all the light and shade that implies—that’s what makes his work interesting to me, but I think it’s also what draws me to his personal character, too. I’ve remarked before that Sterling’s fictional characters are avatars for ideas, a mixture of types and tropes, perhaps closer to the characters of theatre than of literature: they’re loud (even, perhaps particularly, the ones who seem to be quiet), and—crucially—aware of their own status as characters in a fiction, if not always in that knowingly-and-showingly way that we tend to think of as the archetypal signature of the postmodern. I now find myself thinking that the most memorable of Sterling’s characters is Sterling himself, and that all the others are just fragments or facets thereof.

(I really hope someone has scraped and archived BtB for posterity, or even just for the purposes of research… though I suspect it’s maybe not amenable to a tool like wget, as it’s a CMS rather than true filetree? If anyone knows how it might be done and would be willing to tell me how—or perhaps to do the work for a fee—drop me a line, yeah? I know Sterling’s OK with this blog decaying into bit-rot, but I’m enough of a creation of the academy that I hate the thought of it not becoming a part of his “papers”. As a document of a period of history in the not-exactly-a-place that is/was “the internet”, it’s probably peerless.)

  • Sterling, B. (2020, May 17). Farewell to Beyond the Beyond. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2020/05/farewell-beyond-beyond/

go beyond the injunction of innovation

An interview with the principals of the Design Friction atelier:

When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.

In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.

In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo […]

Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm.

Pulling this out as a quotable riposte to the inevitable “well, it’s just critique masquerading as design, isn’t it?” complaints… SD/DF approaches are going to form an important part of my work in the years ahead, and thus I assume I’ll find myself making that argument about social goods many times over.

fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking

A bunch of snips from an interview with Matt Ward [via Matt formerly-of-BERG Jones], until fairly recently Head of Design at Goldsmiths:

Speculative Design can act as a mode of inquiry or it can be a form of strategic practice within industry. At its worst it’s an aesthetic, a step-by-step guide or corporate vapourware, at its best it creates a gravity centre, attracting people to discuss different types of futures, whilst using the tools and the language of design to explore and expand our notion of the possible.

[…]

… we never design for today. We’re always projecting and imagining a world where our work will exist. Even design with the fastest turnaround times, from concept to production (say editorial publishing), you’re always thinking of a person in the future, using and engaging with your work. We design for a world that doesn’t yet exist. We’re constantly imagining (or making assumptions about) the conditions and possibilities of the future world we hope to inhabit. This is why, over the last decade, more work is focussed on different environmental and political possibilities, because these issues dominate our attention and imagination.

[…]

In informal educational settings, in workshops in industry for example, I see speculative methods can be used effectively to loosen up creativity – allowing diverse stakeholders to explore possibilities without getting stuck on the near term problems. By “suspending disbelief”, you can examine the values and assumptions your organisation holds.

He drops some good, concise gotchas for the practice near the end, too:

As we’ve seen with Design Thinking, over stating the power and claims of design can ultimately undermine it as an approach. Using it as a method doesn’t guarantee interesting or resonant work. Over selling its power risks it being dismissed in the future or turning us into snake oil sellers.

I’m having to think about this a lot right now, because I’m dragging something fairly closely related to SD into the world of environmental politics, where people on all sides are pretty desperate for some sort of magic wand to make everything better. It’s important that I continue to remind them, and myself, that SD and/or narrative prototyping is not and cannot be that magic wand — though it might be a way to support the creation of highly situated magic wands in those circumstances where it’s done successfully. Which is of course related to:

Designers are comfortable seeing prototypes as a fragile, non-fixed ways of thinking – a process of thinking through issues and ideas without finalising a future possibility. However, these futures, seen out of context, can become concretised in the imaginations of non-designers. The proposals, that we give material form, are often misinterpreted as possible and desired, not propositional and problematic. In other words, be careful what you wish (design) for.

This is our old friend, the hazard of hoaxiness — the interpretation, presumably fostered by the social conditioning of decades of marketing and advertising, of any designed object or service or environment as a promise rather than a proposal (as mentioned just a few days back, in fact, in the context of charismatic megaprojects).

This got under my skin early on, and has always been one of my major issues with mainstream futures studies and scenario-based methods of foresight — it’s genuinely terrifying how quickly people will not only start to eat their own dogfood, but also claim that they like the taste.

Last but not least:

If Speculative Design builds competency in thinking about future alternatives, the design community needs to ensure that it is aware of the structural inequalities that allow for a privileged voice. I think it’s become painfully obvious that we don’t need any more white male billionaires telling us how the future looks, therefore by moving Speculative Design outside of the “academy” we need to make sure it’s reaching people who don’t normally have say over the future. We should aim to empower alternative views about how the world could be.

Yeah, this. Political science (and the social sciences in general) are still pretty bad at this, but that’s at least in part down to the institutional inertia of disciplines, and of the academy more broadly; a lot of folk at the coalface desperately want to do more co-productive work, but getting it funded can be a real challenge. (There’s more than one reason I’ve come to Sweden; no UK research council would touch my work with someone else’s barge-pole, and that’s not only because of my vocal contempt for the ubiquity of “innovation” as the dominant quantum of value.)

I’ve attempted to keep myself honest on this aspect by drawing on theories prevalent in social-practice arts and placemaking, wherein the artist/researcher is not the author of the project so much as its catalyst and midwife… though this means I’m now in the interesting position of having to actually *do* that, rather than simply hold it up as an ideal.

But as Ward makes clear above, it’s necessary. It became obvious to me early on that a significant factor in the foreclosure of futurity experienced by ordinary people is that they feel like they’re subjected to a barrage of grand promises (or threats) that fail to materialise. We’ve spent a couple of decades telling people — with, for the most part, the best of intentions — how they should live under/against climate change. But social-practice placemaking recognises that people are the experts in their own lives — and so it’s time to try asking them how they think they want to live with climate change.

I am confident that the answers will surprise us. As such, resisting the urge to correct those surprising answers will be the real challenge.

charismatic megaprojects / Infrastructure fictions elsewhere

I recently republished the text and slides of my 2013 talk “An introduction to Infrastructure Fiction” here on VCTB (under the Essays heading, which isn’t entirely accurate, but better than nothing for now).

I was reminded of this (and thus prompted to remind you) by yesterday encountering a post at good ol’ Metafilter which mentioned a couple of what are definitely infrastructure fictions: one is a recent Dutch proposal to enclose the North Sea using two massive dams, one between Scotland and Norway, another between Cornwall and France; the other was an earlier proposal to raise an island out in Doggerland and populate it with wind turbines and so forth.

While the Doggerland notion may well have been at least in part serious — it bears some relation to similar projects I’ve seen doing the rounds on the continent in recent years — the Dutch proposal, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, is quite upfront about its rhetorical purpose. It’s trying to say “OK, look, we could take a gamble and spend all this money and effort and skill on a batshit engineering project like this in the hope of making things more environmentally stable over the next however-many years… or we could, like, reduce our carbon emissions, which is comparatively cheap and really bloody easy?”

I still think there’s a value and utility to the infrastructure fiction approach. But much like BoZo’s many bridges, the risk of proposals like this is they attract the excitement of people who want to have their concretised metaphor and eat it, so to speak. Charismatic megaprojects are an easy sell (and very science-fictional), whereas the sociotechnical project of reconfiguring consumptive practices, while arguably even bigger in true scale, lacks the glamour of building a big exciting thing, and worse still smacks of effort and/or privation on the part of the audience, rather than some imagined engineer.

Forestalling that misinterpretation, insofar as it’s even possible, is one of the challenges of the form — one that it has, of course, inherited from design fiction itself.

“Man-made, artificial, mutable” — Dunne (2005), (In)human Factors

Chapter 2: (In)Human Factors (pp. 21-42)

from Dunne, A. (2005). Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience, and Critical Design. MIT Press.

#

Paradigm of user-friendly design generates “enslavement […] to the conceptual models, values and systems of thought the machines embody” (p21)

“By poeticizing the distance between people and electronic objects, sensitive skepticism must be encouraged, rather than unthinking assimilation of the values and conceptual models embedded in [electronic objects]. I am not arguing for a way of designing that is free of ideological content but, rather, for one that draws attention to the fact that design is always ideological. User-friendliness helps conceal this fact” (p22); values and ideals in designed objects not natural, objective or fixed, but “man-made, artificial, mutable” (ibid; emphases mine)

“poeticization” can be generated via “estrangement” and “alienation” [note Suvinean / sf-nal connotations of those terms – critical design as related to the cognitively estranging “novum”?]

“Once the computer became a successful mass-produced object, innovation in interactivity shifted from hardware to software…” (p23) [in terms of trialectic model, hardware becomes infrastructural, software layer seizes the interface layer almost completely]

“To use the existing patterns of knowledge to define a new technology’s possibilities for conveying meaning is not far from the Victorian use of Corinthian columns to support beam engines; design holds back the potential of electronics to provide new aesthetic meanings …” (pp29-30) [relation to skeumorphism? Think also of perpetuation of old and established service models in infrastructural systems; through consistent service design, novelty and power of supporting infrastructure is effaced; persistence of magicality]

“The easy communication and transparency striven for by champions of user-friendliness simply make our seduction by machines more comfortable.” (p30) [equivalence to patter and misdirection of the illusionist? complicity of design in the Spectacle; comfort of familiar metaphors]

domesticity, “pet” technologies; at the other extreme, “alien” technologies

“constructive user-unfriendliness”, NOT user-hostility (p35) [analogy made to foregrounding of language in poetry and literature; poetic function brings an opacity, a playfulness, a drawing-attention-to-itself-ness…]

Design-as-text: “Similarly [to the text as defined by Barthes], in the case of the design object as text, designer and viewer [and user?] play equal roles.” (p36)

Weil’s 1980s radios as “objects about objects in the age of electronics” (p37)

Functional estrangement: “… a form of strangeness that lends the object a purposefulness […] found in the category of ‘gadget’ that includes antique scientific instruments [Newton’s cradle?] and philosophical toys […] objects that self-consciously embody theories and ideas” (p42)

“The fit between ideas and things, particularly where an abstract idea dominates practicality, allows design to be a form of discourse, resulting in poetic inventions that, by challenging laws (physical, social or political) rather than affirming them, take on a critical function.” (p42)