Tag Archives: design fiction

“The We Time”: two papers on transition design

  • Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
  • Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440

These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.


Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”

I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.

(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)

Introduction

Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).

[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]

The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).

While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.

Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).

Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.

Framing

The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:

[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.

p3

(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)

Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.

(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)

This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).

Concretisation

I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.

In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.

Discussion

In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).


Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”

Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.

After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:

We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.

p3

Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).

Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices

As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).

Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).

Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design

Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.

Method, results, conclusion

The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:

  1. setting the scope of the transitions
  2. exploring practices and contexts
  3. re-presenting the future

This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.


In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.

Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.

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.

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.