Tag Archives: design fiction

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)

Five years of infrastructure fiction

Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s tendency to repub stuff from the past, I am reminded that it’s about five years since I gave my original Infrastructure Fiction talk at ImprovingReality 2013 in Brighton. It seems like a lifetime ago, but also like it was just yesterday. Studying for a PhD does weird things to your perception of time.

Anyway, there’s the video if you fancy a (re)watch; if you prefer slides and text (which I certainly do), there’s a full version of the thing still available on Futurismic, though some time soon I should probably move that to a site that actually belongs to me*.

I’m kind of amused to note how early I nailed down the ideas that ended up informing my doctoral work… though I’m far closer to actually developing those ideas now, not least because doctoral work can drift in unexpected and unintended directions, and mine certainly did so. And therein lies a story… but I’ll save that one until the adventure in question is properly finished, I think. (The protagonist is currently still a-wander in the hinterland of corrections.) In the meantime, I’ll remark only that my presenting skills have improved considerably since this, my first proper speaking gig… though on the evidence, it would have been hard for me to get much worse.

* — I handed the Futurismic domain name back to Chris East some time ago, but he’s plainly not yet had the time to do owt with it, as it’s still pointing to the legacy site as sat on my server.

A putative reality that does not (yet) exist

The goal of the process is to put people in circumstances whereby they’re invited and enabled to think and feel into the potential and implications of a putative reality that does not (yet) exist. They do not have to buy it hook, line and sinker; the point is more commonly to invite them to test it out. So, creating those circumstances means alternating between the conceptualisation of your creation at several levels of abstraction: the logic of the scenario, and the accessibility and comprehensibility of the experience provided (part of which is furnished by the context of the encounter which you may not be able to fully control, but which you can certainly try to co-opt). Aspects of this process are captured well by a phrase of futurist Riel Miller which he uses to describe scenario production: ‘rigorous imagining’. The rigour that you need to bring to the imagining is increased when you’re trying to manifest it palpably in experience, rather than leaving it in the splendid abstractions of text or statistics, which are the most common modes of scenaric representation.

Stuart Candy on the goal of “experiential futures” work.

Dispatches from the Chthulucene

The mighty mighty Donna J Haraway on “staying with the trouble”, why Burning Man is the ultimate figure of the Anthropocene, why the Anthropocene should really be called the Capitalocene, and how we might make our way through it to a more chthonic, collective future.

Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble”, 5/9/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

[ETA: OK, so they’ve restricted the embed on this vid, which is a shame. Suffice to say that, if any of the stuff I chunter on about is of even remote interest to you, you should really click through and watch this.]


Elsewhere, rogue narratologist and Adam Rothstein goes meta on design fiction in “Chased by Google X“:

“An old pair of reading glasses, some shaped balsa wood, and pieces of clear acrylic from the edge of a photo frame. Thrift stores are elephant graveyards for commodity goods—one step above having actually caught on fire, knick-knacks, appliances, stereo equipment, and AA-battery personal electronics join the heaps of consumer goodwill that saves these wonderful organ donors from the landfill.”


“Three things make a post” used to be the old blogger’s heuristic, but it’s been a busy week in which most of what I’ve read has been deeply depressing… so I’ll just point you back to my schedule for LonCon3, where I’ll be arriving sometime shortly after lunch tomorrow. See you there?